Jan Erkert is a professor and the head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois. She is the author of “Harnessing the Wind,” and is currently writing “Drink the Wild Air, A Sensorial Journey Through Leadership.” She is a 2020-21 Public Voices Fellow of the national OpEd Project. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
(CNN)Hear! Hear! After four years, the bully has been removed from the bully pulpit! The question is, are we willing to let him go?
Jan ErkertWe’ve all witnessed President Donald Trump’s public displays of bullying. Many have tried to take him down, but far more have been sucked into his whirlwind. President-elect Joe Biden has a new playbook, which is refreshingly bold and radically uncomfortable. But Democrats are already nervous that he doesn’t have what it takes to throw a few punches of his own. If we are to heal our country, however, we will need to not only reject the macho myth that celebrates violence, but also cultivate Biden’s sense of calm. I hear your exasperation, but stay with me. As a dancer, I study physical states of energy. When the body shifts toward violence, your jaws clench and eyes narrow. Any good opponent can recognize the signs and beat you to the punch.Read MoreDancers practice that resistance to the instinctual counterpunch. In one exercise I often conduct with my students, one dancer must remain still while others throw their full body weight into them, like football without any protection. Most fall into a heap on the floor with one or two hits. But one woman I once taught could do it. She was 4′ 9″ and weighed less then 90 pounds, yet as the dancers hurled themselves into her, they bounced right off. She knew something they didn’t. Calm is deceptive. From the outside, it looks still. But within the body, it is anything but. Every time she was hit, she recalibrated and adjusted her weight. It was subtle and easy to miss the astounding skill taking place. Calm isn’t the lack of energy, but rather fluid energy arrested.Why the future looks bright for the Republican PartyBiden likely developed his calm through life’s hard knocks, but it only became crystal clear to me that he had attained a dancer’s skill during the first presidential debate. As the two opponents faced off, Biden, at certain points, swayed gently from side to side, as Donald Trump’s erratic gestures signaled an invitation to fight.With a slow and steady voice, Biden began to speak about his son, Beau Biden, a war hero. Trump took the opportunity to fling a potentially fatal blow by attacking Biden’s other son, Hunter Biden. A younger Joe Biden might have lost it and thrown a punch. Instead, he tapped into his core, and defended his son with vulnerability. “I’m proud of him,” he said. In that moment, Biden showed us that winning doesn’t always come from a knock-out punch. Afterwards, some pundits dismissed Biden’s performance, saying his words lacked finesse and his performance was merely “adequate.” But his win wasn’t in the policy proposals or his promises to the American people — he won by refusing to take the bait, despite Trump’s many attempts to provoke him.After the last four years of Trump, many Americans will find it uncomfortable to step out of the boxing ring. After all, many, including media outlets, have profited from our collective fixation on Trump, as David Bloom recently lamented in Forbes. In late November, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni acknowledged his own penchant for focusing on Trump and wrote, “It’s a tic, not one I’m proud of.” The four issues that could unite a divided AmericaBiden, on the other hand, has delivered a masterclass on keeping calm. Right after the election, when Republicans refused to acknowledge his win, Biden assured us, “They will. They will,” with a relaxed smile. He didn’t engage in the liberal outrage or show the zap of anger many have resorted to, including yours truly. Calm courage shows up in these iconic photos: The Black woman in the green dress who stood with confidence in front of armed police during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2016; the unidentified man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 uprising in Beijing. The tanks never fired. More recently, during the George Floyd protests in Portland, Oregon, a woman clothed only in a mask and a cap sat calmly as police shot pepper balls at her feet. Naked Athena held her ground and eventually the police left. Martin Luther King Jr. understood that non-violence is never instinctual. It takes practice. After a year of boycotting the public bus system in Montgomery, King’s community was jubilant when the courts ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. But King knew the tremendous force it would take to withstand the inevitable acts of hatred and violence as African Americans re-boarded the buses. King posited a breathtaking request of his community: “Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.” Absorb evil? I stand in awe.Get our free weekly newsletter
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Perhaps we, too, can learn to redirect, recalibrate, channel the evil, and arrive at something more benign, dare I say, more loving. The bully has lost the battle. It is time to turn our backs and calmly walk away.