“He’s such a jerk. He had a new girlfriend within a month of breaking up with my friend.”
“OMG. Clearly she has no morals.”
“I can’t believe someone would throw a fit like that. She’s crazy!”
Admit it. You’ve made a similar statement at some point in your life, perhaps even recently. I don’t have to look too far back in my own memory to stumble upon a few similarly disparaging comments. In making these statements, I felt justified in my conclusions about someone’s character based on their actions. Sadly, we often find a certain satisfaction – consciously or subconsciously – in pointing out, reveling in, or discussing others’ mistakes or offenses. If this was not the case, we would not have so many disreputable periodicals available for our perusal in the check-out line at the grocery store.
My question is this: How often do you define others by their worst behavior? I know I’ve done it and I’m certain it’s been done to me. Should we chalk it up to human nature and move on, or should we change the way we respond?
On a blog I follow, MckMama recently explored the issue of defining others by their worst behavior. In the midst of personal pain that society would say easily warrants a hurled insult or twenty, she made a decision to abstain from defining her wrongdoer by his recent hurtful behavior. In her case, the wrongdoer is her husband who abruptly left the family a month ago (mom and 5 kids) and hasn’t spoken to any of them since. She is angry and heartbroken, and she desperately wants to lash out at him and about him. She has thousands of virtual friends who wouldn’t at all blame her , as well as the perfect medium to try him for his crimes. No one can argue that leaving the family was an honorable thing to do. However, MckMama has decided that her pain is no worse than his, even though she doesn’t fully understand the source of the pain or the reason behind these actions. She believes it is her responsibility to preserve her husband’s honor and character during this difficult time, certainly until they can put aside the hurt and get to the bottom of their issues. While he appears to be acting irresponsibly, he is also the same man she married and deserves more than being labeled, judged, and hated.
My own husband recently learned what it’s like to be defined by behavior he doesn’t even remember. He received a public Facebook message from a childhood-through-high school peer who said she wanted to clear the air about being bullied by my husband and his friends in elementary school. The main target of her message was someone else, but my husband was included in her verbal assault. My 38-year-old husband admits calling this woman a childish name one time in the third grade, but also knows that he was nice to her as they grew up and matured. Please don’t get me wrong, as I do not think name-calling is acceptable and I would be so disappointed in either of my children if they called another child a name. I certainly do not think, however, that one comment in the third grade paired with years and years of far better behavior warrants the label of “bully.” If that is the case, I have a bone to pick with my good friend Zack Simpson for calling me “Slime Face” back in the day when I was trying to get him to be my first-grade boyfriend. Regardless, everyone processes events differently and this woman has chosen to view my husband negatively despite his many positive actions throughout the years. That is her choice, and my husband did the right thing by apologizing so that she can close that chapter of her life. He realized that he can’t change what he did then or even what she is doing now, but he has full control over how he responds to both. His choice is to pick her up and dust her off – for her sake and for his own.
As I’ve thought about this issue, I’ve decided that defining others by their worst behavior is the laziest way of managing human relationships. By fixating on the shortcomings of others, we are really just accessing a shortcut to gaining control over out-of-control situations and feelings about ourselves. We often feel better about the many wretched things we’ve done when we focus on someone else’s wrongs. I’m not suggesting that we dismiss all wrongs rather than confront them, but I’m concerned with how often we “throw the baby out with the bath water” and move on.
From a Christian perspective, the issue relates to one of the simplest and most fundamental commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Loving someone through hard times does not erase bad behavior. Frankly, we don’t have that power. By recognizing others as more than a sum of their mistakes and loving them in spite of their bad behavior, however, we honor God in ways that are among the most important to Him. We’ve heard many times that we should “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” The sin is important, but it’s not ours to judge. Our job is to define others the way God does – as wholly worthy of His love.
Someone I admire very much, Howard Hendrick, recently resigned from the role of Director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. At his retirement reception, he talked about the value of each human – rich, poor, good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, etc. He referenced C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory which explores concepts of virtue, goodness, desire, and glory from both an earthly and Biblical perspective. I think Lewis’ words are relevant to this blog topic, and I leave you with the final paragraph from his sermon. Whether you adhere to Christian beliefs or not, I think these words provide inspiration for us to do what it takes to maintain accountability for and responsibility to our fellow man. It is never too late to turn judgment, hatred, and disappointment into love, acceptance, and understanding.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.