On a sunny day here in Santa Monica, I was driving down the street when I noticed a police car on the other side of the road.
Of course, this means that I came to a complete stop at the stop sign, well behind the limit line, let all pedestrians have right of way, and smiled in the general direction of The Law — just like every other time I’ve come across a cop car.
All of this made me wonder: what would the world look like if you were that policeman driving the squad car?
It would look like the world is populated almost exclusively by law-abiding citizens who are very meticulous about their driving. Think about it: as soon as people become aware of your presence, they alter their behavior. You, the cop, are a reality distortion field. It’s as if you send out these waves of causation, and the world conforms to it around you.
Well, guess what, boys and girls: we’re all reality distortion fields all the time. Any time you interact with someone, that someone is also interacting with you — that’s what interact means. So you only see people in relationship to you.
Just as there are different versions of you — employee, boss, child, parent, sibling, relative, lover, pedestrian, driver, friend — there are different versions of the people around you. And you only get to see that version of that person.
This may even be one of the central operating principles of the universe. Quantum mechanics says that by observing something, you change it. At the level of an electron that needs to hit a detector or be bumped by a photon before it’s “seen”, we can grasp that.
But what if that were also true of the macroscopic world of human relations?
Well, I already told you that it is. It’s also one of the most empowering principles of the Tao of Dating: by controlling your attention and expectation, you can change the behavior of those close to you.
Energy flows where attention goes. So if you give attention to your partner’s positive qualities, your partner will grow in those areas (heard of an erection? Same idea). Similarly, if you give attention to the negative qualities — and remember that criticism and nagging are still forms of attention — then those areas will grow. Take your pick.
Also, people will rise and fall to your level of expectation of them. If you expect generosity of spirit and openness of heart, that’s what you’re going to get from your partner. So expect the best, and ascribe positive intent to their actions whenever possible.
This reminds me of the story of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Right after his release from prison, Valjean is taken in by the kindly Bishop Myriel, since no inn will offer shelter to an ex-convict. In the middle of the night, Valjean leaves Myriel’s home, stealing the bishop’s silverware. He is soon caught and brought back to Myriel, who says that he actually gave Valjean the silverware, and how dare he leave in such a hurry so as to forget the silver candleholders that he also meant for him! Myriel then reminds Valjean of the promise to use the silver to make an honest man of himself.
Valjean had made no such promise. But Myriel held him to a higher ideal than the one Valjean had for himself. Subsequently, Valjean goes on to become a wealthy industrialist and then a mayor.
This may just be a story out of a novel, but it does describe reality. You have enough silver in your possession to hold people to the highest vision of themselves at any time. The silver is your attention, the expectations you have of people, and the example you set with your own behavior. Use them wisely.
In conclusion, I was thinking about the meaning of the expression to turn the other cheek last week. From the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
Is this about wimpiness, militant pacifism, or some very literal thing having to do with the time and place Jesus lived in? Many different interpretations exist.
Here’s mine: to turn the other cheek means to take the one action that can result in the salvation of the person who slapped you.
If you slap back harder, you’ve got a slapfest on your hands, and neither you nor the slapper* will be ennobled by it. Just sitting there like a potted plant won’t accomplish much either. The only thing that’s likely to make the slapper pause and perhaps reconsider is to turn the other cheek: “What the hell was that all about?”, he’ll think. And therein lies the shadow of a chance for evolution. It may not work every time, but it’s the only thing that can work.
That’s what Bishop Myriel did. It’s what a Taoist master would do — flow with force and offer no resistance. It’s what Musashi, the legendary Japanese sword master and author of The Book of Five Rings did when challenged to a duel by some street thug who would certainly get killed at the master’s hand.
Not only is turning the other cheek the furthest thing from wimpiness and passivity, it is also the highest expression of the human spirit: the ability to act deliberately in accordance with principle instead of reacting reflexively. And it leaves both parties in a better spot than where they started.
* Slapper is a bit of technical term in England, so all you snickering Brits can settle down now. Works in this context in any case.
How incredibly insightful…I like the way you think! Thanks for this.
@Rhonda: you’re very welcome!
Hi Dr. Binazir!
I just read the Tao Te Ching for the first time last week and I’m having a hard time understanding the subject of offering no resistance and what could be interpreted as passivity, so I’m glad your wrote that post, it does help a bit. By the way I think it’s The Book of Five Rings, not nine.
Thanks again for this post (and all your previous work too!)
Phil — thanks for the note and the kind words. To answer a question some of the other readers may have — yes, there is also a time for a thorough ass-kicking. The likes of Musashi knew when to break out that can of whup-ass and when to crawl between the legs of the thug and continue on your merry way.
great article. i will certainly take “to turn the other cheek means to take the one action that can result in the salvation of the person who slapped you” to heart and try to keep it in mind in my interactions with people.
Ali, you have a gift for writing!