The Way of Implacability, And The Way Out

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
    but a harsh word stirs up anger.–Proverbs 15:1

As a consulting psychiatrist in a large academic medical center, I’m faced with stressful, occasionally even dangerous, situations. It’s easy to slip into auto-pilot mode, eventually over years forgetting to even acknowledge these events. Recently, I became re-acquainted with a story that is scattered about the web in slightly different versions and variously titled, but consistently attributed to an American Aikido expert, Terry Dobson (1937-1992).

A mindfulness expert re-introduced the tale which is often called “A Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath.” The challenge was to try to notice which of three patterns are most often engaged when conflicts are encountered.

The Implacable: a tough guy approach, prone to resisting what’s happening and forcing a situation or person to be different.

The Impossible: a belligerent drunk approach, prone to ignoring instead of acknowledging and accepting inner pain, instead flinging it upon others and causing suffering for himself and others.

The Impeccable: a wise elder approach, meeting conflict or whatever is happening with acceptance and kind attention, without passivity or condoning, instead skillfully choosing how to relate.

Sometimes the residents and medical students and I differ in our approaches when we encounter difficult-to-engage, violent, and suicidal patients. Almost daily, there are a few opportunities for me to demonstrate implacability, especially in situations when a potential for danger exists.

However, it’s very easy to overemphasize implacability. It’s best used sparingly. And I have been so impressed with learners who demonstrate impeccability.

And when teachers or learners are under stress for prolonged periods of time–they can be impossible. It’s called burnout.

Becoming more aware of which approach is being deployed is hard work. It’s easy to teach implacability, hard to model impeccability.

This reminds me of a John Wayne movie, The Shootist. The plot is that an aging gunfighter, John Books, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, while working out in his mind how to end his life with the least pain and the most dignity, rents a room from a widow whose son, Gillom, admires Books talent with a pistol. Books teaches him a little about the way of implacability, and how important it is “not to be laid a hand on.” Gillom is a bit too eager to learn and Books notices this. He tell Gillom that in order to do what he does, which is kill men, you have to be “willing.”

This means that the implacable have to be willing to die as well as kill. This is a very hard way to live and Books really doesn’t want Gillom to learn this.

Spoiler Alert: I’m about to reveal the ending of the movie in order to make a point, so you might want to stop here, watch the movie, and return later.

Books arranges to die on his birthday in a shootout with his old enemies at the local saloon. Of course he kills all of them, but he’s fatally wounded when the bartender shoots him in the back. Books falls, dropping his pistol on the floor. Gillom walks in at this moment and in his horror and anger, picks up the pistol and shoots the bartender, killing him. In that moment, Gillom proved he could be implacable.

But then it is Books’ turn to stare at Gillom in horror, which Gillom notices. He hurls the pistol across the room. Books nods his approval and dies.

I have told my learners that a little implacability goes a long, long way.