Kill Them with Kindness, or Turn the Other Cheek?

Last week I had a spat with one of my customers that ended with them demanding more of a refund than I thought was justified or fair.

I stewed over this conflict for hours over the course of several days.  When the returned goods arrived with yet another snotty note and demand for payment, I had to make a decision as to what to do.

Should I give in to an unjust demand, or stand up for myself and only refund what I thought was fair?  I was becoming more angry and agitated the more I wrestled with my decision.

I knew that this was not healthy.  I tried walking thorough the steps of forgiveness that I understood so well intellectually, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Finally, I realized that there was a difference between what was right, and what was spiritual.  The world’s scriptures don’t say to treat fair people with fairness, they say to treat your enemies with kindness; that we should turn the other cheek, not because it is just or fair, but because that is how we change the world.

As I contemplated this idea while still stewing in my anger, I remembered a talk I had given in college about the three spiritual stages we can act from in our dealings with our enemies.

The first is to continue to see a person as an enemy, but be kind to them anyway – first because it is the right thing to do, but second, because doing so will drive them crazy.  This is summarized beautifully in this very graphic Proverb:

 “If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:  For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.” Proverbs 25:21

The second stage is to see mean people as enemies, but to love and pray for them anyway.  Jesus says this right after telling us to turn the other cheek.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Matthew 5:43-44)

That’s pretty darn hard, but there is an even more challenging stage available to us – that of not even seeing people as enemies in the first place.

“Let them see no one as their enemy, or as wishing them ill, but think of all humankind as their friends….” Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 1

In this situation, I knew that I was not yet capable of the third level of spiritual kindness, and wasn’t even feeling the love that I needed for the second.  What I could do, however, was to heap coals on this person’s head by being exceedingly kind.

I decided to not only refund the amount that they asked, but to refund 10% MORE than what they had demanded.  At least this way, no one could accuse me of being unfair, and I could finally let go of the tug-of-war in my own head about whether I was being unprofessional or not.

There is a Chris Williamson song with a chorus that goes “Gonna KILL them with kindness. Gonna kill them with KINDNESS,” that kept running through my head as I typed in the credit.

So does this count as being spiritual?  Could going through the motions, even if I wasn’t feeling loving or kind, count as a spiritual victory?  Were the angels smiling, laughing, or shaking their heads in dismay?

Three days later, my wife received a very strange call.  The customer who had demanded the refund was on the phone and was very distraught.  They didn’t know what had come over them to make them be so rude, and would we please forgive them and let them order from us again in the future?  This had been a minor wake-up call that caused this customer to re-think their attitude towards money and service and courtesy.

Now, I have no idea whether this customer even checked their credit card statement to see that I had refunded more than they expected.  All I know is that I had decided to follow God’s guidance, even though my heart wasn’t in it, and it had worked a minor miracle.

Don’t get me wrong.  I would still LIKE to be able to love people who are mean to me, but between now and then, if all I can do is move from the desire to get revenge to the desire to “kill them with kindness,” then I will take solace in knowing that any movement in the right direction is still good.  I may never get this kind of confirmation again, and that’s OK.  I got the message. There is a reason why every religion asks us to overcome hate with love and evil with good.  No matter what else it does, it puts a little more good into the world.

Gaining Wisdom Through Compassion

The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion.  — Bahá’u’lláh

Wisdom is the virtue that allows us to recognize what virtue is needed in any given situation.  Put concisely, wisdom allows us to squeeze maximum spiritual gain out of minimum spiritual pain.  It allows us develop our virtues efficiently and effectively.  Common wisdom is that wisdom only comes through experience—lots and lots of experience.  We need to be able to try many different responses to the same type of tests to see what works and what doesn’t.  Wisdom, it seems, comes from trial and error.

But does it have to?

We all learn through experience. The more experiences we have, the more mistakes we make.  The more mistakes we make, the more we learn and the wiser we become. But life is only so long, and many mistakes are fatal. If I want to learn a lot and grow old, then I would be wise to learn as much as I can from other people’s experiences. Through consultation—sharing thoughts, ideas and experiences with people verbally—I can experience the world through other people’s minds. Through compassion, however, I can experience the world through other people’s hearts. I can learn how to identify the presence or absence of virtues in different situations. I can come to feel passion for the virtues that other people love, and grieve the absence of virtues that other people value.

The mind may be able to guess what virtues are present, but it is the heart that is specifically designed to be able to sense the presence and absence of virtues.  Your mind might be able to guess that a brown liquid in a cup is coffee, but without the sense of taste or smell, it would be difficult to prove.  Likewise, there are the virtues that should be present in a situation, and then there are the virtues that actually are.  Our hearts, through our emotional response to a situation, tell us what virtues we perceive.  But it is only through compassion that we are able to experience the emotional response to the virtues that someone else may perceive.

We have all had the experience of expecting a person to react emotionally to a situation in one way, only to discover that they responded completely differently.  People’s emotional perspective is just as unique, just as personal, and just as filtered as their intellectual perspectives. It is not that these people are being “illogical.”  It is that their experience and filters are causing them to sense the presence or absence of a different set of virtues.  The only way to understand them—and increase your level of wisdom in the process—is to develop compassion.

Compassion, then, is the virtue that allows us to identify and appreciate a wide range of virtues through our emotional connection with other people.  When we feel compassion for people who suffer from poverty, sickness, drug addiction, abuse, and other personal loss, then we acquire a great longing for the virtues that would help ease their pain—without ourselves having to suffer from their difficulties.  This is a kind of wisdom that no amount of talk will provide.

The capacity for compassion does not only apply to sadness. To feel what another person feels and be compelled to take action can also apply to hope, love and wonder; to courage and conviction; to faith and joy.

When we see a mother cry at the loss of her son, do we not cry? When we see a child laugh in delight and wonder, do we not laugh? Compassion allows us to benefit from everyone’s experience and be uplifted by anyone’s joy. It connects us to the entire human race.

Note: This is an excerpt from 4 Tools of Emotional Healing and Love, Lust and the Longing for God.

We All Have Faith in Something

We all have faith in something. The question is whether we have faith that we will succeed, or faith that we will fail; faith that the world is a safe place, or faith that it is out to get us; faith that there is meaning to our lives or faith that the universe is a great cosmic accident in which we are just a tiny blip.
We also all believe in a Transcendent Higher Power, no matter how vehemently we try to deny it. This belief began before we were even born and was reinforced every day of our lives for the duration of our emotional development.
We are born helpless and dependent upon adults who had much more power than we did. We believe, to the very core of our subconscious beings, that there is a power outside of us that is greater than we are because we experienced such a power every day of our early lives. Our feelings of helplessness and powerlessness were therefore embedded in our emotional reality at birth. They are the foundational scaffolding upon which our early emotional and intellectual world-views were built.
Our pre-verbal awareness that as infants we were subject to the whims of forces more powerful than ourselves was reinforced by at least 10-15 years of additional experiences during our childhood and youth. It would be unrealistic to think we could erase these feelings from our psyches. No matter what our head tells us, our hearts tell us that there is something bigger than us out there. It would do no good to engage in an intellectual argument with our hearts over whether or not there is a God.

If we resign ourselves to the idea that a part of us will always believe in a Higher Power, we can still do three things. First, we can accept that our hearts will always long for a source of power, strength and protection. This is not a sign of weakness; it is simply a universal aspect of the human condition.
Second, we can work to uncover what our subconscious and emotional beliefs about that Higher Power might be. We will always believe in a force bigger than ourselves, but we can wrestle some power back from it by being able to name it and describe how it has influenced us.
Finally, we can use this use this understanding to slowly redefine our Higher Power, both mentally and emotionally, to be more supportive and loving. Instead of denying or doing battle with the Higher Power we grew up with, we can transform it; educate it; turn it into the loving Force that we need it to be in our hearts.


The First Step in Forgiving

I believe the most helpful step in forgiving is to receive validation that the injustice we are perceiving is real.  From a purely practical standpoint, it is impossible to forgive an injustice that has not been identified as unjust.  This is why it is so difficult to deal with dishonest and manipulative people.  They are masters at hurting us in ways we can’t put our fingers on, or finding ways to blame us for the injustices they perpetrate.  That double-whammy of being blamed for what someone else did to us is one of the things that turns anger into white-hot impotent rage.

To deal with this, or any other source of anger, find a trusted friend to whom you can describe the situation in private.  Tell them that you don’t want advice, just confirmation that what you are perceiving is valid. Before you can forgive, you first need to hear someone say “that sounds awful. That was really unfair. You have a right to be angry.”

Once you are reassured that your feelings can be trusted, only then is it safe to let them go and practice forgiveness.

Note: you need to hear that your anger is valid even if it isn’t true. You can’t see a situation clearly until the fog of anger clears, and the fog of anger will not clear as long as it is being argued with, dismissed or minimized.

This is why small fights can escalate so easily.  When both people are wrong, neither is able to see their part in the problem until the other person’s wrongs are acknowledged first. It is not so much about the other person being wrong – it is about legitimizing our experience of reality.  The most terrifying thing in the world is to fear that you can’t trust your own perception of reality.  The fear that you might be angry for no reason makes you work even harder to prove that you do have a reason.  Once someone else validates that you did have a reason to be upset, then the fear dissipates.  Then you desire for connection, understanding, compassion and forgiveness can take over.

Once fear and anger are not clouding our judgment, we can walk through the four steps of forgiveness described in “Four Tools of Emotional Healing” and let go of our resentment and expectations.  That doesn’t mean we will suddenly become best friends with those who have hurt us, but it does mean that the emotional chains that kept us bound to them will be broken.