There is a Zen story about a young, impetuous warrior who sought to defeat a great Master in battle. The young man was certain he could dispatch the old sensei with great fanfare and boost his reputation. The Master’s students begged the old man not to accept the challenge, but he resolutely agreed to the fight. The entire village gathered as the young warrior began the contest by striking at the Master with a staff. Skillfully, the Master deflected every blow, and every kick or punch that followed. Yet, the Master never made an offensive move. Frustrated by this, the young warrior resorted to nasty tactics.
Throwing rocks, spitting in the Master’s face, shrieking insults, and defaming the great teacher’s ancestors: After hours of such provocation, the young warrior finally gave up and left. The Master’s students hurried to him, confused. “How could you not retaliate?” they asked, and “Why did you allow him to insult your honor without consequence?”
The old Master answered, “If someone offers you a gift but you refuse its acceptance, then to whom does that gift belong?” One of the students answered, “To the one who tried to offer it.” The Master smiled. “Yes,” he said. “And the same goes for anger, misery, and insults. If you refuse to accept these, they will be carried away by the one who tried to burden you with them.”
There could hardly be a more truthful lesson than this; and there could hardly be a more timely lesson for our own day. We are so eager to blame the words, actions, and emotions of others for our own behaviors. We readily accept the “gifts” of anger, insult, and disrespect that are dished out, and are then forced to unload their heavy burden. We are made miserable, and thus, mete out misery. We take the hatefulness spewed in our direction, internalize and personalize it, and in turn become hateful. We accept, rather than deflect, hurt and conversely become hurtful people. Paraphrasing Father Richard Rohr, he believes more pain is inflicted in this world by those who TAKE offense rather than those who GIVE offense. We are enthusiastic acceptors, taking whatever is directed at us.
As old as this Zen story is the Hebrew proverb, a proverb with the same lesson: “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me;’ no, wait for the Lord.” This is picked up multiple times in the New Testament: “Repay no one evil for evil, but so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” the Apostles said. And no less than Jesus told his disciples, “Do not try to get even with a person who has done something to you.”
A bumpersticker may sum up this lesson best: “No one can drive you crazy unless you give them the keys.” Amen. You – and only you – are the one responsible for your own feelings, actions, and reactions. Otherwise, you are bearing the weight of an unwanted gift.