I’m studying Thomas Troward’s Edinburgh and Dore Lectures right now. He’s one wordy dude from beyond the pond in the 1870ish time period. I’ve had a bit of resistance to him because (1) he was an English judge and has that annoying superiority thing going on a bit, and (2) he writes sentences that go on for miles with words that require three cross-references. It’s tiring. However, he does make some great points, and his Law of Reciprocity is one of those I’ve been pondering on all week.
I looked up synonyms for reciprocal, and none of them quite cut it. The way I think about the Law of Reciprocity is much in the same way I think of the Law of Cause and Effect. When you make a particular choice (cause), different results will happen (effect). The distinction with reciprocity, though, is that the effect will match the cause, and in this way each of us is completely effecting our own reality.
There is no better place to see this then at the grocery store check out stand. This is true at any time, but right this moment, I’m thinking of an incident that happened to my oldest son last week at his neighborhood Tucson Safeway (ironic when you break down the name because it certainly didn’t feel safe.)
Here’s the story. My oldest son, Abe, is half black and half white and often experiences the world differently than I do as a white person. His partner, Kelly, is a white girl from the Midwest. They shop in this store 3-5 times per week, dropping a good deal of their very limited dollars as both are PhD students on a tight budget. When Abe is with Kelly, none of the undercover shop watchers follow them around. When Abe is alone, it happens almost every time.
Last week, it was more overt than usual. A tall guy followed Abe around the store in a very obvious undercover watch. I’m guessing Abe carried his cloth bag (because he’s environmentally conscious that way) and was putting items in it like they always do. After searching the store, he couldn’t find miso paste, so headed up front to customer service to ask. The undercover man practically lunged right into him. Abe turned to look at the man and stared him down, now angry because he’s being racially profiled. The man turned and went to the back of the store and through the door.
I’d like to think we have evolved somewhat as a collective when it comes to racial profiling, Abe’s reality in the Safeway (and at the airport, or pretty much anywhere he goes) proves otherwise. Here he is, just having passed his PhD orals that day, feeling proud and preparing to make a celebratory dinner. In this moment of joy, this man is stalking him because of the color of his skin. As he checked out of the store, the man came back out from where he had disappeared earlier and stood by the front door. “Nice shopping with you today,” Abe directed at the man, I’m guessing sarcastically.
The man followed him out into the parking lot and said, “Do you know you can be arrested for outing an undercover officer in the store?”
Abe said, “Do you know that this now constitutes harassment and that I am going to call the real police if you don’t leave me alone?”
This whole incident was upsetting for everyone involved. The attitudes and prejudices of the security guard brought out the fight side of Abe (who is normally very friendly, fun and lighthearted in such settings as he loves to cook and collect ingredients). Both people left feeling very bad about humanity. I can’t help but think that whole thing could have been avoided if the man did not make it so obvious he was undercover, or minimally, backed off once he realized he was offensive. Bigger than that, I dream of a world where we don’t assume somebody is going to steal miso paste because he happens to have a certain color skin.
Now let’s take another incident at the checkout stand. The clerk says, “How are you doing today?” and you say, “I’m great, Pam (or whatever the name says). How are you?” The fact you paid just that little extra attention to notice their name and use it can change someone’s whole day. Then, the next person that approaches will get the reciprocal effect of your good will. Just one person connecting with another and passing it on.
To me, this seems like such a good use of time and energy. This is especially well spent at times when people annoy us. For example, what would have happened if Abe said to the guy in a very friendly way, “Do you happen to know where the miso paste is?” or otherwise engaged him in conversation. Would he have been as aggressively obnoxious? Not according to the Law of Reciprocity.
These times are the best opportunities to practice this law. Try it just for fun. When someone is nasty, shift the energy, and see what comes back at you. Hey, maybe I’ll practice on Troward…
Changing the world, one interaction at a time.