“What we bring to the table” is a phrase I use often. It means what and how we feel, think, express, and act in any given situation. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu instructs us to:
Know yourself. Know the terrain. Know your opponent.
But most of us only know and can speak to the terrain and the opponent. We will know the ins and outs of what our opponent brings to the table, but we will not know what we ourselves actually bring to the table. We will, however, label ourselves in most cases as the one not causing any trouble. We can call ourselves victim, sensitive, right, good, true, even wretched, but we will seldom call ourselves the cause or instigator. We are just looking out at the world. We have forgotten and have missed ourselves.
Just after the Second World War, Albert Camus wrote about the danger of not knowing what we bring to the table: “[W]hile there are many people nowadays who condemn violence and murder in their heart of hearts, there aren’t many willing to recognize that this obliges them to reconsider the way they think and act.” It is all too easy to stake out a high-principled position without recognizing your piece in it.
As I have learned from experience, living in unsafe environments doesn’t necessarily cause us to choose the safest course of action. It’s not automatic that we will choose safely; we have to know what we bring to the table and discern whether it is truly safe or not.
When I was in such an environment, I had to look at what I did, what happened for me, what I brought to the table. And what I brought to the table many times was fear, cringing, bracing for the blow. Also anger. Bringing these things to the table never brought safety. I had to learn to still what I brought to the table.
Most unsafe environments revolve around someone who must not be displeased. That person becomes a dark backdrop to everything in the environment. Displeasing the unsafe person is not an option. We have to find safe people if we want to express our feelings. But our feelings themselves can be unsafe. We end up calling our unsafeness our truth.
As a result, we take out our feelings on a safe person like a child beating a pillow. But beating a pillow is not what we need to be doing; though it may provide momentary relief, it actually perpetuates and even escalates the unsafeness we think we are resolving.
What we need to be doing is minding our own business—not in an isolationist sense, but by minding God’s business, which should be our own. That would require us to know what we bring to the table and be able to adjust it. If we are minding God’s business, we will do what is appropriate. We will speak the truth and not get angry.
When we are nonattached enough to speak the truth and not get angry, we will find that openings appear that allow us to bypass the unsafe person we are facing. We have to withdraw our energy from them; they cannot be our focus. This is what Patañjali means when he refers to indifference to vice. If we do not know what we bring to the table, we cannot achieve this nonattachment, and we remain accomplices.
A great example of speaking the truth and not getting angry is Joseph Welch, the Chief Counsel to the U.S. Army during the McCarthy hearings. It was his measured, nonattached question—“Have you no decency?”—that removed the scales from so many people’s eyes, reminding them of their own decency and revealing Joe McCarthy for the malevolent force he was. Had Welch spoken in rage, no one would have been able to hear him, and McCarthy could have exploited that rage to make himself look judicious. Welch knew himself, the terrain, and his opponent, and he won the battle in one blow.
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