I was asked to talk to an irate patient. I went to the patient’s hospital room and tried to soothe his ruffled feathers. After all, I am regarded as a very calm person under pressure; a peacemaker. The man claimed we had been experimenting on him during his recent diagnostic test in the department of radiology. I calmly explained the procedure he had undergone and thought I had succeeded in calming the man down. Then, he cut his eyes in my direction, let loose with a long string of vile curse words and called me a liar.
Something popped behind my eyes and anger took over. I wadded up his complaint sheet, threw it at his face where it bounced off of his shocked and surprised eyes and then told him I hoped he died the next day during his surgery. I was in a daze after that and found myself sitting at my desk down in radiology wondering “what just happened?”. As you can imagine, so did the administrators who had sent me to the man’s room to calm him down and answer his admittedly baseless complaints. Instead, I had told the man I hoped he died! Where did that come from? Why had I reacted in that way? How did I allow this man to push all of my buttons?
It is no mystery to anyone that we live in a very angry, frustrated culture. Road rage is at all time highs. Revenge is encouraged and there are revenge “sites” on the internet. Our entertainment glorifies blowing someone away. We’ve taken Dirty Harry’s advice to heart and we hope that someone will “Make my day!” so we can unload onto them. Rage and fury and revenge are the emotions of the day. They fuel the hate and violence in the Middle East. They have spread across the globe in wave after wave of destruction and death. Where did we go wrong?
I want to explore the simple teachings of a rather simple man, a carpenter, a philosopher, a teacher who changed the world. Put aside the trappings of deity and savior we associate with Christ for the moment. Let’s look at his words. Words spoken by a simple man to simple, struggling people. The populace of first century Palestine were not too different from today. They were under repression by a very effective, cruel Roman government. Their king was a vile man with perverted tastes in pleasure and a ready tendency to lop off the head of anyone who displeased him. Their local leaders were strict, legalistic religious leaders who were devoid of compassion, mercy, and love. They were being taxed into poverty; crucified for speaking out against the government; sold into slavery at a whim. In short, these people were ANGRY.
So, why would Jesus of Nazareth, regarded by the people of this era as a future king and conqueror, tell these angry people thirsting for vengeance that the best response to an attack on their person was to “turn the other cheek”? What? Be a coward? Bow to the repressive and abusive leaders around them? Worse, don’t fight back, even in self defense?
This teaching, more than any other by Christ, has been discussed and explored down through the centuries. In fact, it has been claimed that a follower of the teachings of Christ must be a coward if they are true to those teachings. But, I believe, this is a very poor understanding of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I may be a simple man with no deep background in theology or Christian doctrine but I believe there is a deeper, more profound thought here than just turning tail and running.
As a physician I am aware of a condition known as the “fight or flight” response. When we are threatened physically or mentally, our body goes into flight or fight mode. Adrenaline kicks in, the heart races, the lungs bring in more oxygen, blood is shunted from the skin and gut to the brain preparing us to either stand and fight, or to run away. This physical reaction is totally beyond our ability to prevent. But, it is not beyond our ability to control our “response” to this physical “reaction”.
The remarks of Jesus of Nazareth must be taken in context. Not only does he tell us to “turn the other cheek” when we are struck on the cheek, he tells us to go the extra mile, to carry the extra burden. When taken in its total context, there is a deeper meaning here. I believe what Jesus is telling us is to deny our simple, easy “reaction” to fight and to pursue a thoughtful, considered “response”. In other words, don’t fly off the handle! Stop the adrenaline surging and the purely animal instinct to fight or to flee and think. After all, we are human beings. We have considerable options in the thinking category over animals. Why not use a thoughtful response? Why not do the unexpected? Like, turn the other cheek? Or, offer to carry the soldier’s burden for another mile?
When we take this initiative, we have taken CONTROL of the situation. We are now in the driver’s seat, not the offender. This will throw the offender off his/her game. It might even stop them in their tracks and cause them to rise up out of their primal anger to the higher levels of cognitive thinking. A measured response is far better than an instinctual reaction. Now, I’m not talking about life threatening situations. I’m not talking about self defense. And, I don’t believe Jesus was talking about this either. He was talking about the day to day interaction we have with ordinary people we encounter along life’s path. A measured response gives some degree of respect and a glint of wiggle room to the offender. Often, the problem with the offender is a deep seated problem that is unrelated to the anger that person is showing you. Maybe they need someone to stop them in their tracks and make them consider another option. Maybe they need someone to stop them from reacting and encourage them to respond.
I might be wrong here but there is another verse not uttered by Jesus of Nazareth that is profoundly true,
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Proverbs 15 verse 1. I might be wrong, but in this season of gift giving and peace to all men, why shouldn’t we heed the words of Jesus of Nazareth and turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; repay anger with a gentle word; do the unexpected.
So, what happened to my patient? His son appeared in my office about an hour after that exchange. By then, I had been interviewed by a couple of administrative reps about MY behavior. The son smiled at me and said, “Thank you for standing up to my father. He has run over everyone he meets because he is afraid that he will not wake up from his surgery tomorrow. But, he told me to tell you that he was going to survive just to prove you wrong. So, I know this sounds strange, but you actually helped him by showing him how he was acting towards others. I want to thank you.”
Who would have thought? But, as positive as this may have turned out, I was the one who suffered. I was the one who felt horrible for losing my temper. It may have worked out for the best, but this is the exception, not the rule. Anger seldom has positive outcomes (except when Jesus needed to drive the thieves out of the temple).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Here is what I learned from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth:
RUR — Resist the Urge to React. Rather, take time to THINK and then RESPOND.
Control — By avoiding a blind reaction, you can take some measure of control of the situation (maybe not completely but at least your side of the situation).
Empathy — An expression of anger often is an indicator of a deeper problem and you might just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Looking for the pain behind the anger might help you to understand why this person is so angry.
Love Your Enemy — Here is the HARD thing to do. But, in this teaching we see the necessity of looking at the other person as an individual with a worldview and a motive that we might understand if we were in their situation. It is hard to love someone you loathe; someone who is lashing out at you. But, an attempt to at least understand their point of view and then trying to find a way to respect that person as a PERSON might help defuse the situation. In other words, sometimes we have to do the HARD thing because it is the RIGHT thing!