My family enjoyed being conned by Doris Payne. She charmed us into rooting for her from the safety of our theater seats as we watched the documentary about her life at the Cleveland International Film Festival. People she burned along the way were less entertained.
Doris Payne lived large. She traveled abroad. She stayed in luxury hotels. She hung out with interesting characters. But she funded all her adventures by fencing the diamonds she lifted from high-end jewelers around the world. She was a remarkably successful thief with an impressive criminal career that spanned decades. But time, age, and technology finally caught up with her in recent years.
The skills she honed to pull off her schemes illustrate the neutrality of attentional skills.
Doris Payne had a high degree of concentration power. She experienced the benefits of focused observation from an early age and she created numerous opportunities to exercise this ability.
She could intentionally decide what to pay attention to when entering a store. She could learned what to allow to operate in the background of her awareness without letting it through her off her primary focus. Like any good illusionist, she refined her ability to direct another person's attention away from where the real action was happening.
She was a gifted student of observation and displayed a kind of fluency with the elements of experience. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that she was able to see through the illusion of a fixed personal identity. But instead of cultivating resilience, she exploited this insight to manipulate and exploit situations and people. She developed a charming and bold persona to distance herself emotionally from her behaviors. She toyed with the boundaries of ethics, emotions, and logic in attempt to evade consequences.
Doris also demonstrated professional-grade equanimity—the ability to stay to go along with the flow of of her thoughts and feelings—even when her emotions intensified. When the stakes were high, she refrained from wrestling against the aspects of experience that were outside of her control.
When accused of suspicious behavior, she relied on manners.
"I can't dictate how the officer will come at me, but I can decide to give him more respect than he is due."
This makes a fitting analogy for having equanimity with unpleasant physical and emotional sensations. Instead of getting defensive and fighting with them, it's much more effective to learn how to turn toward them with openness—even welcoming them to perform their jobs.
Watching Doris work her magic while revealing her tricks, reminded me how important it is to be intentional about how we use our attentional skills. There is a parallel with physical fitness. Exercising develops the body. What we do with the energy and vitality is a separate but important matter.
Likewise, we can employ our strengthened attentional skills to distract people while we break the rules, or we can put them to work cultivating a sense of feeling more at home in our lives.
According to Eunetta Boone, a screenwriter who has been developing a biopic based on Doris Payne's life, Doris has been both the antagonist and the protagonist in the screenplay of her own life that she has been writing every day.
This observation has me thinking about how true this is for all of us. Each of us must negotiate conflicting drives that compete for control. There's the part of me who wants to take the high road when dealing with difficult people versus the part of me who would prefer to get a taste of revenge. The part of me who sees the benefit of discipline and consistent effort has to contend with another part that is often too tired to follow through with the specific tasks and challenges I've set for myself.
It's easy to focus on the outcomes that we want from life, but difficult to act consistently in ways that will move us down the road toward reaching them. We are seduced by shortcuts. The devil whispering into our ear invariably has better marketing than the angel quietly building a case for wisdom and maturity. We inadvertently substitute identification for cultivation, but ultimately, it isn't possible to escape the character we create through the accumulation of our actions. This is the actual definition of karma.
Doris Payne evaded capture. She felt powerful. She deceived countless people. In spite of all this, her escapades are fun to watch. We even feel sorry for her when she loses. She does not voice any regrets about this, yet what does she have to show from the life she's lived?
She has entertaining stories. She crossed international borders with diamonds sewn into her underwear. She tasted power and vengeance. She never had to take a boring job to make a living. She played by her own rules. But her tale is ultimately cautionary. She dodged and distorted the basic guidelines of civility. She lived only for herself. Her character cannot be untangled from the life she built almost entirely on lies. And the person she has tricked most effectively throughout, is the part of herself that knew the difference between right and wrong all along.
As with each of us, she has been her own worst antagonist.