Life in the Kingdom Blog

Noncomplementarity: flipping the script

I know I promised that in my next post we would start going through what's called "the Sermon" in the Sayings Gospel Q. However, a friend sent me a video that is so applicable to our larger discussion here that I couldn't pass up doing a post about it. Furthermore, it features a principle that is virtually the central theme of the Sermon.

The video is a wonderful piece produced by NPR. It's just eight minutes long. It tells the story of a celebratory dinner that was terrifyingly interrupted by a robber with a gun. You can read the story here and watch the video below. In fact, before going on, please go ahead and watch the video now. And make sure you watch to the very end, so that you hear the comments of the psychologist Christopher Hopwood.

The story is almost too good to be true, yet it clearly is true. We hear from some of the actual participants, and even though it ends on a note that is almost out of this world, it is full of entirely realistic elements (like trying to shame the man with the question of what his mother would think).

The central feature of the story is what NPR calls "flipping the script," and what psychologist Chris Hopwood calls "noncomplementarity." Noncomplementarity is a word coined by psychologists to describe behavior that does not mirror or complement the behavior the person has just received. Generally, we behave in kind: if someone is warm to us, we respond warmly in return. Another form is that if someone is submissive, we behave dominantly, and vice versa. Noncomplementarity, however, involves not behaving in kind. The focus in this story is on warm and generous behavior in response to aggressive and threatening behavior.

One thing I find especially interesting about this principle is the examples they cite: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. What I find so interesting about that is that, as we saw back in Week 7 of the Mustard Seed Foundations series, both of them traced their noncomplementarity back to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount (which is basically an expansion of the Sermon in Q).

I believe that Jesus is this world's greatest teacher and exemplar of noncomplementarity. In fact, a number of years ago, based on the teachings of Jesus, I coined my own term for this same basic principle: non-reciprocity. Back in 2005 I taught a class in Sedona for the Circle of Atonement on non-reciprocity, citing both teachings in A Course in Miracles and the following teachings from the gospels:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. (Mt 5:39-41) 

If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back. (Thomas 95:1-2) 

Love your enemies. (Lk 6:27, Mt 5:44) 

If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? After all, even sinners love those who love them. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? (Lk 6:32, Mt 5:46)

Interestingly, all of these teachings are found in the Sermon in Q. The saying from Thomas 95 is not explicitly from Q, but it is closely mirrored by Q 6:30: "To the one who asks of you, give; and from the one who borrows, do not ask back what is yours."

To be a follower of Jesus, then, means to be devoted to demonstrating noncomplementarity. Obviously, this principle transcends Jesus and transcends religious teaching of any kind. Yet there is something unmistakably otherworldly about it. It feels like the intrusion of a loftier, more sublime order into this dog-eat-dog world. That is why, at the end of the story told in the video, one of the participants says "This was like a miracle. It was like a miracle." The NPR host questions that and suggests that there is a better word: noncomplementarity. Yet I would say that noncomplementarity is a miracle. It is the miracle we need to heal this world.

I would love to hear your own stories of noncomplementarity. Actually, what I would especially love is this: a story of noncomplementarity that comes after you read this post. I would like to challenge all of us to consciously choose noncomplementarity in at least one difficult situation. It may help to read this article that links from the NPR story. It opens with a nice little example of noncomplementarity. Once you have your own example, please share it with the rest of us here.

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Robert Perry

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  • I just read this, and I really want to thank you for it. This and the stories others shared are truly awesome. I don't have a good noncomplementarity story yet, but I'm keeping my eye out for opportunities to practice it.

    I do remember one thing that Patricia has told me that she's done in some situations in her life. There have been times when a loved one was yelling at her, and instead of yelling back or being submissive, she simply said in a gentle tone, "Why are you yelling?" It wasn't in the sense of "Why are you yelling, you jerk?!" but a genuinely compassionate sense of "What's wrong, my dear? How can I help?" And she really felt the desire to help in her heart as she did this.

    She tells me that in most of these situations, the script was completely flipped—the person stopped yelling and the two of them had a kind-hearted conversation. This strikes me as a good example of this principle.
  • Ken, thank you very much for trying to apply the message and telling us your story. Even though the guy turned out to be harmless, it does ignite some pretty basic fears in us to see a stranger going through our personal belongings. So I think it's great that you didn't respond in kind to what you could easily have perceived to be going on.

    I wish I had a story worth telling. I've been trying to carry this out, but it's mainly been in lots of little interactions at home with the family. What I find is that with people I have very involved relationships with--wife and kids--it is all I can do to move the needle a little more towards the noncomplementarity side. At the same time, even a little bit of movement has a noticeable effect. So rather than one notable story, I just had a number of little ones, with traces of noncomplementarity, and with some nicer outcomes as a result. While this is admittedly not worth writing home about, it does help me realize that the principle shouldn't be reserved for particularly nasty situations, but applies in milder situations all the time.
  • Great story and example of "flipping the script" and the connection as a principle found in the Sermon in Q. I did take to heart your call for stories after reading your blog and watching the video. Although not perfect, here is my example of attempting this in a seemingly difficult situation:

    I was visiting my mother in a nice community in Southern California, Irvine, the last few weeks. I decided to swim some laps in a neighborhood pool that is part of the subdivision. I used my mother's card to electronically unlock the gate to the pool, which are only issued to homeowners. I was quite happy to find the pool empty except I did see some clothes and stuff on one of the pool chairs. I had left my wallet in my car but of course had my car keys, expensive sun glasses, and wrapped them in my towel along with the coveted pool-card key a few chairs down from the chair that was apparently being used. I was a little wary leaving my stuff unattended but what else can one do and, for God's sake, Irvine is notorious for being one of the safest cities to live in.

    So I was absorbed swimming my laps but on finishing one particular lap I decided to look toward my things to check on them. At that very moment, I caught an older man looking through my towel. I quickly called out assertively with the question "can I help you". He turned to me and said, "oh, is this yours?". I said it was and he went back to the aforementioned chair, which had his stuff. I also noticed he was not alone as he had someone I could only assume was he wife.

    I went back to swimming but all the while I was trying to figure out why he was rifling through my stuff. My suspicious mind was that he was up to no good and that him and his wife had some kind of racket going on visiting the different neighboring pools to prey upon the unsuspecting. Yet, I had a good spiritual practice going that day so I started to use this situation as part of my practice as I swam my laps. I also had remembered the noncomplementarity principle somewhere in all of this.

    So I started coming up with other explanations for his behavior such as: 1) he was senile 2) he wanted to leave the pool but did not have a card and was going to use mine 3) him and his wife were homeless and this is where they came to take a shower 4) they were thieves (I just couldn't let this one go).

    I finally decided that my hypothesis #4 shouldn't matter and that I needed to trade my dark view of him even if he was wanting to take something from me. Anyway, I ended up deciding that if my hypothesis # 2 was correct then the loving thing would be to see if he and his wife needed to leave the pool area. I have to admit, it was still mixed with hypothesis #4, which nagged at me to check to see if anything was actually missing from my towel. So I got out of the pool, found that all was intact, and grabbed my card and asked him if he needed to leave, in which he quickly shook his head and said "no". I wasn't sure at this point if there might be a language barrier at play. Anyway, I went back to swimming and when thoughts of suspicion and judgment would enter my mind, I would quickly dismiss these temptations and attempt to replace them with an idea of his divine innocence. At one point, I had this image enter my mind of him bowing with his hands held in prayer toward me as though it was in response to my efforts. I was heartened by the image and felt that I had made some progress and was on the right track.

    Yet, things even got a little weirder as I was finishing up my laps. He and his wife moved from where they were camped and moved to a patio table right next to my chair. I was wondering why they had moved so close to my stuff but at this point I was less on the side of suspicion and more on the side of wanting to see them through loving eyes. I especially wanted to communicate to the guy that all-was-well and erase any awkwardness or embarrassment at me catching him looking through my stuff. I was still working on my mind to get to a heartfelt place and, after I toweled myself dry, I turned to him and his wife and said "goodbye" with a smile and I think I wished them a nice day. I made eye contact with each, albeit brief, but they responded in kind to probably the measure I had given. I wish I had even given more of my heart but he seemed to respond quite readily to my attempt.

    There you go! It certainly was nowhere near perfect but I did make a conscious attempt to "shift the script" in this situation, which was playing out mostly in my mind.
  • Robert, I wasn't aware that Terry Dobson's story appeared in "How Can I Help?" That's another book I need to read! I came across the article in a 1981 issue of the New Age Journal, which indicated that it first appeared in the "Lomi School Bulletin."

    Changing gears, I thought it might be helpful to include the reverse side of this discussion. So far, the articles that have been shared focus on how we can become agents for radical change in the lives of others. What about when the shoe is on the other foot and we are the robber at the dinner table? The drunk on the train? The sick or emotionally disturbed person in need of healing? How do we allow ourselves to be healed by whatever sources God may send our way?

    Here's a fantastic story that illustrates the need to be open to God appearing to us at unexpected times and in unexpected packages. We might ask ourselves, "In what way do I limit the ways in which God can reach to me? Do I insist that He/She/It only appear in certain packages? Am I missing opportunities for healing because I'm not paying attention to something -- or someone -- that is right in front of me?"

    This story comes from the psychic readings of Ray Stanford.

    The Blind Man At The Gate

    Long ago, I remember a blind beggar sat each day beside the gate on the east side of the wall of the city of Jerusalem. For years he made that place his daily residence.

    So clever were his ears that he had learned the sounds of those who walked along the way. He could detect the man of wealth by his step, by the sound of his voice, even by the sound made by the texture of his clothes and shoes. By cleverness of the ear he could discern the Roman from the Jew; in fact, he could identify, with little difficulty, a man of almost any nation.

    By sound alone did he discern what he considered to be the worth of men. Those who dragged their feet or who let their sandals flap too much as they walked; those whose clothes were of insufficient crispness or weight (indicative of lack of wealth), he ignored, and did not even bother to raise his cup and ask for alms.

    One day footsteps were heard along the hillside and upward to the gate — familiar footsteps, but of little importance to the beggar. By the sound of their feet and the timbre of their voices he recognized the walk of two fishermen from Galilee.

    Beside the fishermen as they passed by was the voice of a man he recognized as being from Nazareth. If I might know the beggar's thoughts at the time, they were, "Ah, a man from Nazareth. Perhaps he has a family of the class of workers or carpenters, perhaps a maker of roofs. These fisherman, this laborer, would have no coins for me. Better to save my voice than to waste on them a forlorn hope of alms." These were the words within his mind and heart.

    The fishermen were Simon and Andrew. The Nazarene was a man called Jesus.

    The beggar remained blind throughout his years; the slyness of his ear had stolen away the very opportunity that his eyes might see. Had his heart been prepared in love, he should at least have spoken. Or had he even asked, unknowing, sight might have been received. Yet, so it is that often men allow the greatest opportunity to walk by them. In blindness they hear its footsteps, but they judge its cadence by the ear of wisdom and fascination in things of the world.

    Who was the blind man at the gate? I am. It has taken me nigh two millennia to begin to hear anew. And still, my eyes do not see…
  • David, those are great stories. The first one is truly one of the all-time greats, which I remember from Ram Dass' How Can I Help? The second one I'm sure I should know, but I don't remember reading it. Also a great story, all the better because it's from your own life.

    Alexandra, I agree, of course, that these behaviors can't be forced or artificial, that they need to arise from something that feels right in us for that moment. But I do think there's a bit of an "on other hand" in this story, in that you get the impression that the woman who offered the robber the glass of wine did it almost as a gesture of last resort. Nothing else had worked--no one had any cash and berating him wasn't working. So what's left? What can we give this guy? Well, why not some wine? So I think sometimes we can perhaps just stumble into this noncomplementarity.
  • What a stunning story, Robert!!! Absolutely mind blowing. A breath of fresh air, and a reminder of the importance for all of us to feel and be included, literally and symbolically embraced, accepted, loved, a part of something larger. I love how the concept of noncomplementarity makes the teachings of Jesus so simple. And how fascinating that a simple reversal of what is considered normal behavior can bring about a feeling that, in fact, something miraculous has occurred.

    David, those are really amazing examples, awesome stories!!! It's almost unbelievable that you told the boy the first story one day, and it literally played out in front of him the next. And the fact that you told him the story one day, and then became the example of the person that turned the situation around the very next day--Wow! It must have had a huge impact on the boy. That feels like a miracle to me!

    I do also want to say that in order for things to turn out well, these kinds of behaviors need to arise out of our own sense of what feels right to us in the moment, not just trying to mirror a behavior. Here is the part of my comment that relates from the Foundations Series Week 26: The Resurrection: What Did It Mean? Part 2,

    "...I’m looking forward to discussing more about how to apply these teachings in general, as there are big questions that arise in terms of how they can be lived out in a way that is right for each person in each situation. We’ve talked about this in our classes, that we need to look to our personal guidance as situations arise, and do what we feel is right for us. It seems that the transformative nature of the teachings are in spirit, and possibly in action because as we know, life situations can be complicated, and can also change on a dime. We ultimately need to turn to our own inner guidance and sense of what is right to determine what to do, as we move though life's challenging situations.

    Your response to my comment, Robert, has stayed with me, "I agree. We need to apply these teachings, inside and outside, in a way that fits both the situation and where we ourselves are at. For instance, if I was in Jesus' situation and basically said, "I love you guys; go ahead and nail me up," I think I just would have been a dead curiosity."

    I like your exercise at the end, and I'm looking forward to participating!
  • Robert, thanks for sharing the dinner robber video and your insightful comments. This is a fantastic post and topic.

    The most moving noncomplementarity story I've ever come across was written by a black belt in Aikido named Terry Dobson. I'll share his story, followed by a story of my own that took place in Washington D.C. when I was helping chaperone a group of Sedona 6th graders. The principles championed by these stories are, I think, outstanding examples of how we are encouraged to move through life. A tall order, to be sure, but if we are searching for ways to genuinely transform ourselves, others, and the challenging situations we find ourselves in, I think this is the way to go...


    A Soft Answer
    By Terry Dobson

    A turning point in my life came one day on a train in the middle of a drowsy spring afternoon. The old car clanked and rattled over the rails. It was comparatively empty -- a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks out shopping, a couple of off-duty bartenders studying the racing form. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedge rows.

    At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the quiet afternoon was shattered by a man bellowing at the top of his lungs -- yelling violent, obscene, incomprehensible curses. Just as the doors closed the man, still yelling, staggered into our car. He was big, drunk, and dirty. He wore laborer’s clothing. His front was stiff with dried vomit. His eyes bugged out, a demonic, neon red. His hair was crusted with filth. Screaming, he swung at the first person he saw, a woman holding a baby. The blow glanced off her shoulder, sending her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

    The couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. They were terrified. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old lady. “You old whore!” he bellowed. “I’ll kick your ass!” He missed; the old woman scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole at the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up.

    I was young and in pretty good shape. I stood six feet, weighed 225. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training every day for the past three years. I liked to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

    My teacher taught us each morning that the art was devoted to peace. “Aikido,” he said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate other people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

    I listened to his words. I tried hard. I wanted to quit fighting. I even went so far as to cross the street a few times to avoid the “chimpira,” the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. They’d have been happy to test my martial ability. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart of hearts, however, I was dying to be a hero. I wanted a chance, an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

    “This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet. “This slob, this animal, is drunk and mean and violent. People are in danger. If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt. I’m gonna take his ass to the cleaners.”

    Seeing me stand up, the drunk saw a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” he roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!” He punched the metal pole once to give weight to his words.

    I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead. I gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I gave him every bit of piss-ant nastiness I could summon up. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to be the one to move First. And I wanted him mad, because the madder he got, the more certain my victory. I pursed my lips and blew him a sneering, insolent kiss. It hit him like a slap in the face. “All right!” he hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me. He’d never know what hit him.

    A split second before he moved, someone shouted “Hey!” It was ear splitting. I remember being struck by the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it -- as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he had suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!” I wheeled to my left, the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono and hakama. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

    “C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly. The giant man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman and towered threateningly over him.

    “Talk to you?” he roared above the clacking wheels. “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

    The old man continued to beam at the laborer. There was not a trace of fear or resentment about him. “What’cha been drinkin’?” he asked lightly, with interest. “I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your god damn business!”

    “Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said with delight. “Absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake, too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s seventy-six, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it our into the garden, and we sit on the old wooden bench that my grandfather’s first student made for him. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, you know, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Persimmons do not do well after ice storms, although I must say that ours has done rather better that I expected, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. Still, it is most gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening -- even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling, happy to share his delightful information.

    As he struggled to follow the intricacies of the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “I love persimmons, too…” His voice trailed off.

    “Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

    “No,” replied the laborer, “my wife died.” He hung his head. Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job, I don’t got no money, I don’t got nowhere to go. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of pure despair rippled through his body. Above the baggage rack a four-color ad trumpeted the virtues of suburban luxury living.

    Now it was my turn. Standing there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

    Just then, the train arrived at my stop. The platform was packed, and the crowd surged into the car as soon as the doors opened. Maneuvering my way out, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said with undiminished delight, “that is a very difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

    I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled like a sack on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man looked down at him, all compassion and delight, one hand softly stroking the filthy, matted head.

    As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle and meanness had been accomplished with a few kind words. I had seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love, as the founder had said. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.


    OK, here's my story:

    I had a similar experience when I went to Washington D.C. with a group of 6th graders from one of the Charter Schools in Sedona. In one of the most haunting synchronicities I’ve ever experienced, I told the above story to one of the 6th grade boys in an attempt to get him to think about treating others more kindly. He was a big fan of WWE wrestling. He scoffed at the story and thought it was stupid.

    The next day, we got on a bus. After we had driven a couple blocks, a man got on the bus who, while not drunk, started making all kinds of rude comments about people coming from out of town to visit DC. The more he talked, the louder and more threatening he became. The children, teachers, and especially the young boy, who was sitting closest to him, were all getting very uncomfortable. And I was, too, since I was the only adult male in our group. So to break the ice, I engaged the man and started asking him about himself: Did he live in DC? Had he always lived here? I told him where we were from and why we had come. As soon as I engaged him, he immediately calmed down, and by the time the conversation was finished, he apologized to everyone for being rude. We exited the bus shortly thereafter.

    While I didn't follow up with the young boy, I'm sure the situation made a very deep and lasting impression on him. Ditto for me.


    The information I have shared above, complete with a short video from a movie I made of the trip to Washington D.C., is available here:
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