Turning the Other Cheek

But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” —Matthew 5:39

I only recalled this famous bit of advice the other day when it was too late. I wonder if it would have changed the way I reacted.

I was parking at Macy’s in Albany NY, and bumped a concrete post that marked the handicapped zone. A few people looked up, but there was no damage. However, a taxi driver parked a dozen feet away rolled down his window. He didn’t have to shout; he had a loud voice and his tone was belligerent: “Hey you! That’s a handicapped zone. You need a permit to park there. Do you have a permit?”

I looked over at him, frowned and nodded.

He began shouting. “You can’t park there you f****** Frenchie b*******. It’s a handicapped zone.” Obviously, he’d seen our Quebec license plate and jumped to a hasty conclusion.

“Mind your own business,” I said. I’ve encountered nutcases on four continents and learned to regret one thing above all: being dragged down to their level. My golden rule is to neither raise my voice nor curse.

He jumped out of the car, stomped up to me like an angry little boy and placed his nose a quarter inch from mine. I smiled.

“Pepé Le Pew,” he shouted. “F***ing French f******.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. I’ve lived in Quebec for 30 years now, but never entirely lost my British accent. I certainly never acquired a French one. I was angry, but mystified too.

He continued to pour out abuse.

“Why are you so obnoxious?” I asked.

My wife Caroline had by now extricated herself from the passenger door and was waving her handicapped parking permit in the air. Our trump card! “Look…,” she began.

“You,” he swiveled on his heel and pointed at her face. “Shut up!”

“What?” She was shocked into silence – a rare thing.

Now I was mad. “Don’t you speak to my wife like that,” I advanced on him. “Who do you think you are? And how is this your business?”

He drew himself up to his full height – which to his credit was a head shorter than me. “It is my business, f***ing Pepé Le Pew. I,” he proclaimed proudly, “am a citizen.”

“Great,” I said. “So call the police. They’ll protect you from us.”

By now people were standing around open-mouthed. A mother bundled her child into the back seat of a car, glancing fearfully over her shoulder. An incredulous young African-American man approached the cab driver. “What are you saying?” he asked. “You don’t talk to people like that. That’s no way….”

The cabbie turned towards him and glared. The young man looked apologetically at us, turned on his heel and disappeared. I didn’t blame him. If this bizarre man could summon up so much venom for foreigners who were barely even foreign, I could only imagine what he had in store for visible minorities.

He began again. “F*** you! Go back where you come from.”

My blood was rising now and Caroline was calling me nervously to get back into the car. The thought flashed through my mind of what might be concealed in his glove compartment, but he’d returned to the cab and sat complacently with the window down, continuing his mantra of hate.

Clearly, nothing I could say or do would change this man’s mind. Still some hormone drove me to close the gap that separated us. I looked down into his indifferent eyes and said, “We’re leaving now. You’ve scared my wife for all I know you’re planning to damage or steal our car.”

It made no difference whatsoever. Just as I realized I was wasting my time he offered up, “Me, I’m Italian.”

“Really?” Throughout this exchange I’d completely forgotten Christ’s extraordinary suggestion. Worse still, before turning away from him I broke my golden rule by saying something to him in Italian. Something very rude.

It fell on deaf ears. He spewed on.

I believe very much in the power of compassion, but it took me a long time to see this person as sick and in need of help. For the rest of the day Caroline and I went around half-dazed. I felt a sense of mild guilt that I couldn’t quite account for. After all, weren’t we the victims?

Perhaps it was about me not quite living up to my own golden rule. Rather than remaining aloof, I descended to his level … almost. I thought now of another sage, this time the eighth century Indian Shantideva. “When their sandcastles collapse” he said, “children howl in despair. Likewise when I am no longer praised, my mind becomes like a little child.

So what if some idiot thinks I’m an idiot? Ah, but somehow I did care, and therein lay my shame.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

3 thoughts on “Turning the Other Cheek”

  1. Fun story to read! I know not fun for you in the moment, though. Found myself revisiting that old scene from Star Trek decades ago, wherein Capt. Kirk was forced to grievously insult Spock, risking his life, in order to use his subdued violent emotions to snap him out of some stupor caused by an alien botanical. Kirk chose Spock’s half-breed interspecies lineage as the focal point of his attack, and it worked.

    So many questions come to mind in these types of instances… was there a specific trigger that explains the potency of your reaction? Maybe the involvement of your wife, or even his Italian heritage, shared with you. But in other cases, these same triggers would not work at all. So what is it? Is it really true that your trigger was that he thought you idiotic? Sometimes with me, if the circumstances are ‘right’, I will over react just because someone is being irrational towards me or towards anything, disconnected from what they think about me; it seems the trigger is not so directly observable in these moments. It requires reflection. And what about him? What happened in his life the previous hour?

    Buried within our guilt lies the seed of the wish to do better. So you could not remain aware of your ideals in this heated moment, but soon after you had regrets and even the beginnings of compassion. So, no real cause for shame, perhaps. I bet he had cause for some sort of reflection too maybe, in his own way, afterwards.

    You offered homones as an explanation at one point, possibly jokingly. I propose another idea to consider. When these ‘destiny’ moments occur in our otherwise mundane daily living, a cosmos wiser than we comprehend is arranging a serendipitous lesson or question to ponder, wrapped in a dramatic scene. We can thank the directors and script writers, and even our own past, by taking it all as an item for deeper private scrutiny.

    1. Rob: Funny you should mention that Star Trek episode. I remember it well. At that time I too was preoccupied with thinking of myself as a half-breed interspecies.

      Was there a specific trigger? God, there were dozens of triggers: pride, defensiveness, husbandly protectiveness, outrage, disgust … plain anger.

      Still, you’ve got a point. In younger days anything remotely resembling this sort of attack would launch me into instant rage. I was a serial fighter, always defending my honor, often getting beaten up and sometimes gaining the upper hand.

      Except that there is no upper hand in these things. I tweeted a great Buddha quote yesterday: “You are not punished for your anger, you are punished by your anger.” It was when I realized there was no winning in the outside world that I went looking for a spiritual path.

      I’ve been trying to subdue myself ever since. Mind you, I’m still a passionate man and make no apologies for it. Some things you have to fight for.

      As for our assailant having cause for reflection afterwards, I sort of doubt it. The greatest insecurities are accompanied by a need for unshakable truth; only denial can provide that. It’s the one human trait I’ve learned never to underestimate.

      And about the cosmos being wise and concerned: I love and respect the way you tell it but hope you take it with a grain of salt.

  2. I felt a little sick after reading this story and I’m sorry both of you ran into this individual, you didn’t deserve his abuse and shouldn’t feel guilt for your reaction. It’s hard to say how to react in this type of situation. I think, (sorry for the generalization), that men often react differently than women do in conflict with an aggressive human being. This guy is entranced with the voice in his head and as we know, this can be insane. Perhaps the stress of the traffic he deals with in his job, his own insecurities of his place in the world…who knows, he is asleep, wandering in his own nightmare and this can lead to dangerous results when he puts those thoughts into the world of action.

    What if this scene had escalated and he did have a gun in his car? We are after all discussing a drama in the U.S. If you bump into a bear in the woods you don’t try and reason with it, you drop your voice to soothing tones and back away slowly. To expect that this man has any level of awareness and intelligence can be a fatal mistake. I wonder if some of your guilt lies in rising to the occasion and thus taking a risk by confronting the bear? I wonder if that impulse has been hard wired in many males?

    I had a similar incidence one day when my husband and I were looking for a parking spot at a mall. I don’t recall the details but we met up with a man acting in an aggressive manner and my husband, rather than ignoring him, gave him a little attitude right back despite my advice to get away. Sure enough, the guy sought us out in a crowded mall full of Christmas shoppers. I spotted him and went directly to a security guard and this scared the brute off.

    You taught me a lot about my mind and that voice that can be looping around with negative, untruths, and I’m grateful that I’m able to snap out of it and see it as anything but the truth. My dilemma is I find it easier to slip into that dream state when I am in company with people who are in love with the crap in their heads. Possibly it’s my biology that gives me the wisdom to get away from aggressive males but I still find my self falling asleep and becoming entranced with dramas when in company with negative individuals and this is very frustrating.

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