Turning the other cheek

November 15, 2007 | 13 comments

Last month I was walking through a department store and happened to pass a sitting area that had a television tuned to a news channel. Unfortunately, I walked by just as the announcer was recounting something that happened to a four-year-old girl, something so horrific that it made me feel ill (it’s the same story I referenced in this post). The little girl lived, but what she went through was truly hell on earth. I continued to think of her hours, days, even weeks after I heard her story. I still think of her every now and then and wonder how she’s doing.

Meanwhile, a couple days after I heard this story, someone was really rude to me. The details of how I know this person and what happened don’t matter; suffice it to say that my perception was that her actions were not only extremely rude but undeserved, uncharitable, unreasonable, unkind, and just completely out of line. I responded with hostility in the form of defensive sarcasm, and then proceeded to share some uncharitable and unkind opinions of my own about this woman with my husband, mother, mother-in-law and pretty much anyone else who would listen. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the thought that maybe I should be turning the other cheek since I now claim to be a Christian, but that was overshadowed by an indignant feeling that if put into words went something like, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the way I’m responding — after all, she was SO MEAN and SO UNFAIR. If I’m being nasty here it’s ultimately her fault.”

A while later, around the time I was walking around composing the “fantasy passive-aggressive email that I would just LOVE to send to this woman” in my head, the little girl from the news came to mind. Completely out of the blue, it occurred to me that one day that little toddler who’d lived through such unthinkable events will grow up. She’ll be an adult. Maybe I’ll even run into her at the grocery store. I thought of how I would treat her, how I would be sure to show her the utmost kindness to try to add some amount of love to her life, even if it were just in the form of a passing smile. No matter what the premise was for our interaction — even if she cut me off in traffic or stole my parking spot, even if she were to do something “SO MEAN” or “SO UNFAIR” — I would respond with charity and forgiveness. I would turn the other cheek.

It was interesting to realize that, just as I was in the midst of very much not turning the other cheek in my current situation. Yet when I thought about some hypothetical future interaction with the little girl from the news, it brought into relief the fact that there would just never be a good reason to be nasty or hostile to her. The severity of the events she’d been through startled me into realizing that any unkind thing I did or said to her, even if it were a reaction to something she’d done first, would just be lashing out because of wounded pride. Not only would it not solve anything, but it would add to the suffering she’d already experienced in her life.

That brought me to my current situation: had the woman who was recently rude to me not suffered? Surely she hadn’t been through anything as terrible as the little girl on the news; yet I bet if I were to see a highlight reel of the bad events in her life I would have overwhelming empathy for her too. I bet I wouldn’t want to add to the suffering she’d already experienced, no matter what. I bet I’d be willing to turn the other cheek.

I thought of all the other times I’d reacted to unkindness with more unkindness. The combative nurse at my doctor’s office, the unhelpful customer service rep at my insurance company, the condescending mom at the playgroup — I’d been uncharitable and unkind in my reactions to all of these people…yet for all I know they were some of the children whose terrible stories I saw on the news 15 years ago. Maybe I heard of the events in their lives and shook my head in sorrow, wishing that I could do even just one small thing to make their lives better.

Thinking about all this made me realize that I had always mentally compartmentalized people into two different groups: the people who live through horrible tragedy who I hear about on the news, and the people who I interact with in my daily life. The people on the news had almost theoretical status: they were people who I will never actually meet but, if I hypothetically were to meet them, I’d be extra motivated to be as perfectly Christ-like as possible, no matter what, so that I didn’t add to the suffering they’d seen in their lives. However, the thinking went, I don’t actually know anyone like that.

But of course I do. I might not know many people who have experienced events as extreme as that of the little girl on the news, but everyone has suffered. We all live in this fallen world together, and because of that we have all experienced hurt, loss, cruelty, abuse and pain, to some extent or another. Everyone I’ll ever interact with has had something bad happen to them. And when inevitable misunderstandings and altercations arise, if I respond to unkindness with unkindness, to scorn with scorn, the only result is that I am adding to the suffering they experience in this life, and to the total amount of suffering in the world.

Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that I will respond like Christ to all interactions from here on out. I do hope I’m able to keep this lesson in mind, though. I hope that next time I come across some tale of tragedy on the news, when I think, “My God, these sorts of things are so terrible, if only there were something I could do!”, I hope I remember that there is some small thing I can do: though I won’t ever be able to completely erase all the suffering from the world, I can start by not adding to it.


  1. Irene

    That is so true. We are so quick to be angry and vengeful when someone is mean or unfair to us.

    We automatically assume that they are being mean just because they are MEAN. But maybe they are going through a really hard time, or maybe they have faced horrific events in their life.

    I always believed that when some acts miserable and mean and hateful, it is because they are very unhappy people with very unhappy lives. People that are happy and fulfilled, are generally just happier and kinder people. And you are completely right, we should just walk away, turn the other cheek, and not contribute, but try to alleve the pain of those who are already so miserable.

  2. Jocelyne

    This is brought home to me every time I visit my father’s grave. I see other people there, visiting their dead. I see freshly dug graves. I see graveside services in progress.

    I know that everyone will have to bear these losses someday, if they haven’t yet. It makes me a little kinder than I used to be.

  3. Melanie B

    Jen, this is so beautiful. Thank you. I needed this reminder.

  4. Kristen Laurence

    Beautiful and true, as always. My mother taught me to always interpret people’s behavior charitably. Assume they either mean well and don’t know how to communicate properly, or that they’ve suffered in some way, causing their bad behavior. When approaching others this way, not only is it easy to forgive, but it enables a person to love his “enemies” (in quotes because those people really aren’t enemies at all – they’re our path to sanctification through charity, as you so beautifully showed in this post).

    Sorry for the long comment. I only mean to affirm your words. 🙂

  5. Lisa

    Excellent contemplation and lesson!

  6. Catherine Shaffer

    I had a similar revelation this year. About six months ago, I experienced the resolution of a great deal of anger that I’d been carrying around for more than thirty years without realizing it. In all that time, I was working through an incredible loss–one that most people can’t imagine. I had no idea this was going on in my heart, but during that time I was most likely rude or hurtful to people who didn’t deserve it, out of my own anger and hurt. When I thought about it, I decided that I really needed the entire 31 years to process the event that happened to me, and I thought that conceivably, someone might need even more than 31 years. Looking at people around me, and realizing that each one may be on a journey of many decades’ healing from some terrible personal loss or hurt of their own has mellowed my attitude towards others considerably. Not to mention, it is easier not to get riled when I am not so angry inside myself. I try to see people not as they are in that moment, but as God sees them…the ultimate perfected self that they are trying to become. It makes it so much easier to forgive, knowing that my own kindness may bring that day closer.

  7. Abigail

    Great post!

    I’m trying to kick an ingrained gossip habit, and it’s truly hard. The hard part isn’t “not saying” mean things, it’s not thinking them! Turning the other cheek, charity- hard to practice on strangers, even harder to practice on blood relatives. One of the main, main things that is supposed to be a characteristic of Christians.

    On another tangent, what motivates me to practice radical forgiveness is the depressing news of War in the Middle East. The New Yorker has an detailed article about retalitory violence in Iraq. There was an interview with a Muslim mother who’s son was murdered that hit close to home for me. These days when I’m really not in the mood to forgive, I think about the Middle East- and dig a little deeper. I want peace there so badly, so it motivates me to work harder to bring peace to my little corner of the world.

  8. Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ

    That’s a lot to ponder..thankyou..

  9. Seeker

    This is what it is really all about! We so easily forget what it truly means to follow Christ.

    A lovely post. Thank you.

  10. lourdes

    I have been angry and hurt for the last 15 years. I decided that I was tired of being prisoner to my emotions and decided to focus on the blessings I have in my life, and not the hurt.
    When I hear so many stories of the misery of our world, it makes me think twice about the insignificance of what I complain about. It makes it easier to “turn the other cheek” because there is probably someone who is worse off than me.
    Thanks for a beautiful post, Jen.

  11. pipsylou

    Wow, this just resonates so well with something that has happened in my own life. Your blog is such a source of knowledge and inspiration to me. I thank you! Every time I see an update from you in bloglines I can’t wait to click.

    I am also learning the very important lesson that just because someone is needy/angry doesn’t mean I have the capacity to help them. I also have to protect my own very soft and sensitive heart, and find a balance between wanting to save the world and finding safe people I can really confide in…

    You know I’ve been struggling with this lately.

    I love the fact that you have 3 small children and this stuff really has a hold on your heart. That is hard to find and it is so refreshing. Helps me know I am not alone!

  12. Jane

    I just started reading your blog two days ago. This story, which I read before I went to bed last night,is very powerful. I had a dream last night in which I saw and experineced the reason in which a friend of mine betrayed me. I have so much empathy for her now, where before I was filled with so much anger, hurt and resentment. I believe your honesty and humilty in sharing your thoughts was the catalyst in me having this dream . Thank you, it is a true healing.

  13. Jennifer F.

    Thank you all for your comments!

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