What the “Other Cheek” Approach Is Really About
Nietzsche, Jesus, the Buddha, and Lao Tzu on how to build personal power and confidence
If I told you that there was a piece of advice about personal growth that a 19th century atheist philosopher and Jesus both agreed on, would you take it to heart?
What if I also told you that an ancient Chinese sage and and the Buddha also pretty much agreed with it?
If 4 minds as diverse and scattered across history and geography can agree on something, there’s probably something to it, right?
As it turns out, there is such a thing. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it the “other cheek approach”. It’s a piece of practical advice on how to craft a resilient mindset — the kind that can help you get through the various things that life throws at you.
The 4 Versions of the Principle
My choice for the principle's name comes from the New Testament of the Bible, in the book of Matthew 5: 38–42 (as well as the book of Luke, as they shared source material). It’s something that Jesus supposedly said to his group of followers as a metaphor for moving past the slights that happen to you.
The full quote is both interesting and provocative. Here it is for context:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Not only is Jesus suggesting that we should be okay with the injustices done to us, but also leave ourselves open to more chances to be wronged. What a truly subversive — and perhaps crazy — idea. After all, doesn’t this way of thinking simply make us into doormats — leaving us open to being continuously trampled upon?
Not quite. There’s something more to it than that. It’s not about meekness or weakness. It’s not about letting others overpower you. In fact, it’s the opposite; it’s a philosophy of being powerful yourself.
Here’s the same advice in a quite different voice — that of famous philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche. In his Genealogy of Morals, he links this turning of the cheek to power and confidence:
As the power and self-confidence of a community increase, the penal law always becomes more moderate….how much injury [a person] can endure without suffering from it becomes the actual measure of his wealth. It is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it — letting those who harm it go unpunished. ‘What are my parasites to me?’ it might say. ‘May they live and prosper; I am strong enough for that!’
For Nietzsche, turning the other cheek isn’t so much about morality as it is about practicality. The stronger you are, the more confident you are, the less the slights of others weigh on you. It’s not because they’re less wrong or sting less at first. Rather, it’s because your focus isn’t on them, but rather on your own strength and confidence — which has little to do with what others have done to you — and more to do with what you’ve done, and will do, for yourself.
As a third example, the first chapter of the Dhammapada — the sayings of the Buddha:
‘He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me’: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace.
‘He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me’: those who give up resentful thoughts surely find peace.
This is a clearer commentary on the harm that comes from focusing on the wrongs done to you and the people who did them. As long as you focus on those things, you keep peace out of focus, and live an angrier life, filled with resentment and limitation.
And finally, we have the Tao Te Ching, which (on one translation) discusses what a person looks like when they’ve taken the “other cheek” approach to heart:
The master can keep giving
because there is no end to her wealth.
She acts without expectation,
succeeds without taking credit,
and doesn’t think she is better
than anyone else.
A “master” who lives this approach lives without expectation, beyond seeking credit, and doesn’t thrive on comparisons between herself and others. The “wealth” here is not merely a wealth of funds, but more of an internal wealth — a sense of self-worth. The master’s self-worth is rich enough that no wrong or injustice done to her by others can make a dent in it. She proceeds with confidence in herself, and the power that comes with it.
The common theme here is this: to dwell upon the injustices done to you is a surefire way to remain both weak and miserable. But to proceed with an internal sense of power and confidence in yourself, your worth, and the value you can bring — is the way to build a life you can be proud of.
What This Advice Isn’t Saying
But we need to be clear here, so that there is no misunderstanding. There are 2 things that these pieces of advice aren’t saying.
First, this advice is not saying that it’s okay to abuse, lie, cheat, and steal. Of course, those things are wrong, and the pain they cause is real. This advice isn’t about what is right for people to do to each other. It’s about what is best for you to do for yourself — especially when others have done bad things to you.
Second, this advice isn’t saying that we shouldn’t take time to process the effects of wrongs done to us. It’s important to process grief, loss, pain, anxiety, and all the things that come from trauma and negative experiences. What we shouldn’t be doing is allowing those who have wronged us to take up space in our mental and emotional lives by harboring resentful and vengeful attitudes toward others.
Turning the Other Cheek is About Power
All 4 of these sources are pointing out something about power. Namely, there is a power within you that no one can take away from you unless you hand it over. That power is the power to keep moving. It’s the power to be confidently yourself no matter what has been done to you. It’s the power to define yourself not by what you need to be given or what needs to be given back to you, but by what you yourself are doing for your own personal growth.
Again, we should all be treating each other with respect and reverence, and calling out those who don’t do that is right and helpful. Anyone who experiences terrible injustice has the right to call it out and seek justice. But there is a difference between working for justice and and unhealthy obsession with what has been done to you — with resentment and vengefulness.
When someone steals from you or abuses you, they absolutely did the wrong thing. No doubt about it. And you deserve some space to process what happened to you. But the longer you wait to go on building up yourself and your life — the more you attach your happiness to what happens to someone else who wronged you — the longer you suffer.
These 4 messages are not moral, they are spiritual — as in, they are meant to breathe life into you and empower you. They’re meant to energize you. So don’t take them to be saying that people are free to wrong others and it’s all okay. What they are saying is that the route to personal power and confidence lies in your choice to be powerful enough to live your life as yours, and not as a collage of what has been done to you.