The Wisdom of “Road House” (1989)

“Those who are impatient and easily angered, cannot take humiliation. Those who are honorable will find slanderous remarks difficult to accept. These weaknesses are common among commanders. They pose a threat to good strategy. They also cause armies to break up and deaths of generals. Therefore, they are to be avoided.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War


I was about twenty years old, working at Desmond’s department store downtown, and taking a bus home. There was a bus going into East L.A. at the stop: not my bus. It was filled, Latinos and whites. A kid sitting at an open window smiled at me, and I smiled back.

Then…he spit in my face, and called me “nigger.” His friends howled with laughter.

I felt the flare of rage, humiliation, a fever to “get even.” Feeling his slime running down my face was almost beyond endurance.

I clearly remember my response. In an extremely rapid sequence, I imagined grabbing a trash can and smashing it at the window to hurt him. And being arrested.

Then I imagined clawing my way onto the bus. Stomping him. And being stomped by his friends. Hauled off the bus. Arrested.

I couldn’t see a way to respond that wouldn’t end in me being worse off. None. At the moment, he had placed some body fluids on my skin, and spoken some words. But if I took action, he would have damaged me in ways that might follow me for years, or even end in my death.

I wiped off my face, and went home.


Yesterday there was a meme floating around that I found useful. It was a quasi-Buddhist thought that I knew would trigger comment. Attributed to Warren Buffett, it said: “you will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing things with logic. True power is restraint. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass.”


This triggered a raft of comments, and I thought it might be useful to parse them.

Z.M. said: Steven Barnes I find this really interesting. Here you say that it’s a good thing to separate oneself from one’s sensations and emotions. Elsewhere you say that it’s essential to retain and develop a primary instinct to protect oneself, that this is “basic animal reality,” the root without which the plant cannot blossom (mixed metaphor yours).

I find these statements mutually contradictory. Emotions and sensations *are* “basic animal reality”; they, if anything at all, are the root from which the plant of our intelligence derives its sustenance. Survival instinct is part of that root complex.”

Yep. But responding to words is not a healthy survival response unless there is a genuine threat. It is an ego response. How dare he! In combat, angering the opponent with insults and curses is an elementary tactic, and the warrior must learn to separate themselves so that such comments are just noise.




Remember the movie “Road House”? Patrick Swazye as boss bouncer “Dalton” trying to explain the job to relative amateurs?

Dalton: If somebody gets in your face and calls you a cocksucker I want you to be nice

Hank: [With resignation] Ok

Dalton: Ask him to walk, be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him, but be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you and you will both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s the job, it’s nothing personal.

Steve: Being called a cocksucker isn’t personal?

Dalton: No, it’s two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.

Steve: What if somebody calls my Mama a whore?

Dalton: Is she?

[everybody snickers]

Dalton: I want you to be nice… until it’s time… to not be nice.


Get that? Words are just sound, until you combine it with your own fear and insecurity and lack of clarity. If a tree falls in the forest insulting your mother as it does, and you aren’t invested in its opinion…did it really make a sound? If so, then every tree in the forest has you by the short hairs, and your chances of death or injury go way up. EVERY DAY people die because they “had to” respond to someone’s words.

No, they didn’t. They made an unconscious choice, based on their programming, the voices in their heads that told you that you had to respond to a comment with violence.

Well, YOU had to, at that moment, because you didn’t have the resources to do otherwise. But you could develop those resources, and not respond that way a second time.


  • N.L.: “I can easily see that sort of advice as saying that I should have gotten it right already and I’m a failure. Which is an emotional reaction to words, so I’m a failure already.

    I’m getting some clues about the pattern, but being told I’m fucked up for having it doesn’t help.

    One thing that has helped is realizing that when people keep giving advice about a thing, it’s because most people *aren’t* following that advice — I’m not a unique failure.”

  • ##

This is a great one to deconstruct, because it is so very human.

  1. The first thing is: is it possible to analyze this comment without triggering negative emotions? I hope so, and will be as careful as possible. The fact that none of us are perfect DOES NOT mean that we are broken, wrong, bad, or failures. These are voices in our heads. The result of past programming. Meditation, therapy, and journaling can be wonderful to help separate us. One of the most powerful secrets in all of personal development is the fact that WE ARE NOT THE VOICES IN OUR HEADS. We are the ones LISTENING to the voices. Critical distinction.
  2. “I can easily see that sort of advice as saying that I should have gotten it right already and I’m a failure.” Interpretation: “When you say I can avoid reacting to words, what I hear is that I’m a failure.” We all have wounds and non-optimal responses. But be careful: they will actually protect themselves by associating pain with even noticing that they are there, as opposed to: “oh. My finger is broken. I need a splint.” Imagine if the break “protected itself” by saying “You broke me! You’re too stupid to deserve a working finger.” Or “what do you mean I’m broken? That’s no bone sticking through your skin. Ignore that, you idiot, or people will think you’re clumsy!”
  3. “Which is an emotional reaction to words, so I’m a failure already.” To the contrary, you are a success IF this time…you noticed. That is the beginning of Awakening To NOTICE what happened as opposed to just letting it happen and being swept along.
  4. “I’m getting some clues about the pattern, but being told I’m fucked up for having it doesn’t help.” The “I’m fucked up” came from inside your own head, not from me. Asking: “what part of me thinks I’m fucked up for that?” is VERY powerful. Often, you will notice that that voice is some specific person from your past, an abusive lover, a parent, a teacher who had power over you. Just realizing that those voices are NOT you gives you a tiny bit of leverage to keep poking around and unraveling that emotional Gordian Knot.
  5. “One thing that has helped is realizing that when people keep giving advice about a thing, it’s because most people *aren’t* following that advice — I’m not a unique failure.” Absolutely. The question is: WHO SAID YOU WERE?

The ego thinks it is you. It will adapt to any challenge by lying to you and saying that when you threaten IT you are under real survival threat. It will kill you to avoid dying alone.


No, you don’t have to respond to words as if they are blows or cuts. They are sounds. If it is untrue, and the person has no immediate power over you, why precisely are you reacting as if it is, and they do?

People who want to control you LOVE for you to do this. They want you to stay in a web of co-dependent, gas-lit reactionary responses, and all they have to do is pluck the strings and you’ll get fightin’ mad, freeze in place, or run for the hills.

Often, we can spot this when it is done to others more readily than ourselves. We KNOW that our children don’t have developed frontal lobes, that teenagers make decisions based on lizard-brain responses, are storms of emotions. “Adulting” demands that we NOT be pulled into those responses.

If my son says: “I hate you!” if the attack has its desired effect, I will be hurt, will want his approval, will change my position to give him what he wants. If I am to be a good father, I must NOT respond emotionally with fear or anger. What can I do?

  1. Remember that attacks are expressions of anger.
  2. Remember that anger is fear.
  3. Ask what the underlying fear is, and see what you can do to address it.

If he is afraid he cannot do his schoolwork, afraid that he is not smart enough, this is something that often triggers resistance to study. Fear he cannot do schoolwork is fear of not learning what he needs to enter the adult world. Or fear of disappointing me.

I can address those by making sure he knows I love him. And finding examples of where he has been successful, applying those lessons to this instance. Or telling him of times I or someone he admired felt fear and succeeded anyway.

What about the kid who spit in my face? He did that out of what fear? Why does someone think humiliating someone else brings them pleasure? How little do you have to think of yourself to need to put someone else down just to feel level?

What was the nature of the “tribe” of young men he belonged to, if doing such a thing gave him status? How desperate are they? How frightened of life is he?

Of course, perhaps he is just a young predator, taking pleasure in hurting others. They exist. Such people cannot be reasoned with, and there is no real “fear” underlying their actions. But…they are rare. What I can do then is not respond as he wants me to. If I do, in a way that damages me, they win.

But…that emotional “flash” is stronger and faster than conscious thought. Once it has you, those frontal lobes shut down. This is why meditation is so powerful. It isn’t for “this time,” it is for “the next time.” You are digging the well before you need the water. Planting the tree before you need the shade.

You KNOW that something will come and trigger you in the future. So you are preparing, by coming to know the voices, looking at the structure of your ego, thinking about who you really are, as opposed to the weak illusion that leaped for the bloody bait and fell into an abyss of unthinking, automatic reaction.

It is human to have an emotional response. But it is adult and “awake” to ask if that response was optimal, and if it was based in reality. And if not…to pierce the veil of illusion.

Words are not things…unless you make them so. You have the power, if you decide to take it.

And if these words trigger guilt, blame, or shame…that’s the ego, pretending it is you.



(the path of “adulting” includes appropriate emotional responses, without which you are unsafe to raise children. It is therefore critical to having a healthy non-codependent or manipulative relationship. Get the FREE “Ancient Child” visualization to help you cultivate a healthy inner world, and join us in the February discussion of Finding and Caring for your Soulmate.

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