You think you know someone, then you learn the back story…
Do you ever meet someone, get to know them a bit, and form ideas in your mind about them? “He’s weird.” “Why on earth would she do that??” “What is this dude’s deal?” I’m not proud to admit it, but I’ll be honest, I have. I like to think that I still treat people well, despite pigeonholing them – hopefully you do, too – however it’s a sobering moment when I recognise that I’ve done this, when I realise that I jumped to conclusions; I didn’t know the whole story – and I shouldn’t have needed to, in the first place, but it seems to help.
I recently attended the memorial service for an elderly gentleman in our church, during which I was not only reminded of the joys that await him in the other world, but where I also learned a fair deal about this kind man whom I hadn’t known very well. In the five years that we’ve lived in Australia, I’ve seen him a couple dozen times. About two years ago he stopped coming to church, due to his decreased mobility, but prior to that he used to come to church every other week – travelling nearly two hours by public transit to get here! – sometimes arriving right as it ended. (“Why would he bother coming all this way when he clearly wouldn’t get here remotely on time?!”) I’d had brief conversations with him – if you could call them that; we didn’t seem to have much in common, so I’d ask him the vague question of how he was doing, or he’d tell me some long story about a particular tree in the church gardens. (“That’s nice, but I’m really not all that interested. Why is he telling me SO much trivial information?”) From all accounts, he seemed to me like an odd man, someone whom I viewed as an acquaintance but not a friend, whose company I willingly tolerated but didn’t seek out. We were friendly, but, frankly, I was kind of put off by his weirdness.
During the eulogy presented by a cousin at his memorial service, I learned that he’d been quite a bright fellow (and pretty ‘normal’, from what I could gather!) in his youth. What changed? Toward the end of his university years he developed a brain tumour, which lead to epilepsy – and to counter that, he had surgery in which they completely removed a big chunk of his brain (!) to treat it. (“In retrospect, I remember noticing a sizeable divot in the back corner of his head… Huh; I guess that would explain its presence.”) Well, sure enough, the seizures stopped, but so did some of his ‘normal’ brain functions. He had to re-learn to speak, for goodness’ sake, among other cognitive skills. He found it difficult to work at his job, and so effectively was disabled – this, from a pretty young age. He lived with his mother, who taught him a lot, and eventually moved out on his own. I realise now that he was very high-functioning, considering what he had experienced!
As my own brain processed this information, I gained a new perspective on this dear little man. I had passed judgement on him, written him off, in a way. How unfair of me! How downright uncharitable. Although I don’t particularly like labels, I have to admit that it helped soften my heart by knowing more about his battle, knowing that he was “disabled”. This brings to mind two other particular individuals who’ve frequented our church from time to time, both of whom, it turns out, have bona fide mental problems. I feel much more compassionate when I realise there’s really something going on. …And I’m ashamed when I have to remind myself that we ALL have something going on.
I’ve seen it written before, but this beautiful little nugget of wisdom is really driving the point home for me, again and again:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Ian Maclaren)
What a profound truth!
These bits all came together for me when, as part of a recent spiritual growth program, we were encouraged to have compassion for others. It suggested that shifting our mindset from anger or other negativity to compassion for another can ‘loosen old resentments’. Bingo. We’re asked to model our lives after Christ, after all, aren’t we? And The Lord would approach absolutely everyone with love and compassion. We’re also asked – no, told – not to murder, which includes not murdering someone’s spirit. While we may be able to be kind to everyone on the surface (which is definitely important!), we need to work – remembering to try on different perspectives – to be kind through-and-through; to love everyone; to hold them tenderly in our hearts.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:32
“The first step toward goodwill is not to do evil to our neighbour.” True Christianity 435