What Works: Can You Turn the Other Cheek?

A challenge to work on everyday acceptance


Acceptance is the answer to all my problems, because if I’m in acceptance, I have no problems. OK, that takes care of this column. See you in two weeks…

If only it were that easy! This simple concept is found in many spiritual traditions and it seems we need to be reminded of it every day. In my last column, I talked about acceptance of reality, acceptance of the limits of human existence. Here I want to talk about everyday acceptance.

That jerk who cut you off on your commute this morning? It doesn’t matter. Just missed your train? There will be another. That woman at the office who plays little power games with you? Let her play. The churchgoer who isn’t as righteous as they “should” be? It’s none of your business.

Most people embrace the idea of acceptance up to a point. It might be easy enough to see you must accept that you can’t control the world. (Though we all struggle even with this at times.) But at some point, most people jump ship on the principle of acceptance. And sadly, religious people in particular can be very unaccepting of people they deem unworthy.

My challenge to you this Lenten season is not to suddenly become perfectly accepting, but to be more aware of the everyday moments when you are unaccepting. The next time someone cuts you off and you’re preparing to let them know they’re a jerk (in case they didn’t already), maybe you’ll have the awareness to see how this person’s slight against you is already done and gone, but you’re still plotting your revenge. You might not be able to stop yourself, but shining a light on it, along with prayer and meditation, daily reflection and other spiritual work can help make a gradual change.

What Jesus preached and modeled again and again was nonattachment through radical acceptance. If someone slaps you in the face, turn the other cheek. If someone approaches you as a friend, whether they be a prostitute or a tax collector or an upstanding citizen, accept them with the same open heart. His message is that by refusing to get caught up in the false games of pride, materialism and fear, you can be free of the pain and anxiety they create and remain in the sunlight of God’s Love.

An old spiritual teacher of mine once said, “Forget ‘turn the other cheek,’ in theory, someone should be able to punch you in the face and you wouldn’t get angry.” What is the driving force behind getting angry when you are punched, after all? It means you’re unaccepting of the fact that this happened. A person punched you. It probably would hurt your pride to let it go unavenged. But obviously that person is hurting, perhaps crazy, probably less spiritually grounded than you. Why wouldn’t your reaction be compassion for their emotional pain? This is the example modeled by Jesus on the cross mourning for his executioners.

I’m not saying we can live up to this. We all fall short every day of the ideal of the life modeled by Jesus. But most people would not agree that it’s even fair to expect it of them. And in doing so, they abandon the idea that the life of Jesus is a model to emulate; instead, enshrining it in the magical past along with miracles and prophets, as a story with lessons to learn from but not as a real expectation for behavior. We are called to more than that.

Life on life’s terms

One of the most famous statements about acceptance is from the recovery world. A part of it goes like this:

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment… unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. (from AA’s “Big Book,” page 449)

“Are you saying I must accept evil?” — that’s usually one of the first things resistant people say. The most confusing and confused thing about the concept of acceptance is that it does not mean approval. You see this confusion time and time again in the comments after any article that talks about anything contrary to church teaching or ethical behavior. Inevitably someone will say that we must always be unaccepting of sin. Christine spoke eloquently in her latest column about the value of meeting people where they are, rather than preaching at them and judging them. I’ll just add that not only is it unhelpful to those we might help to be unaccepting; it is also damaging to us.

When you don’t accept someone, for any reason at all, you are shutting yourself off from a piece of God’s creation. Having a judgmental heart is not following Jesus’ example. As Eleanor says of the judgmental archdeacon in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, “I hate a religion that teaches one to be so one-sided to one’s charity.” God’s love is infinite and unconditional. If we are aligned with that love, we can reach toward that same goal in our own human relations.

Everyone falls short, but that’s OK. We’re only human. One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism in the first place was what I saw as its acceptance of the messiness of life and the imperfection of every person — as not a condemnation but a universal embrace. Evelyn Underhill said:

“The true mysteries of life accomplish themselves so softly, with so easy and assured a grace, so frank an acceptance of our breeding, striving, dying, and unresting world.”

In the sidebar on the right, I offer a few links to past columns in which I’ve talked about aspects of acceptance. I encourage you especially during Lent to have more awareness of where you are unaccepting and to see how that feels.

In a future column soon I’ll deal with perhaps the biggest issue for people today: accepting ourselves as we are. Email me your thoughts on that. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences with having more awareness of those moments when you are unaccepting. What is your experience with radical acceptance of reality and of others? How has it created opportunities for greater love in your life? Where have you struggled against it? Do you disagree that there are no exceptions? Comment below, or email me at phil AT bustedhalo (DOT) com.