I really think that I could be a less judgmental person if I avoided public places. But no. Museums, the zoo, playgrounds, the grocery store… my current season of life is lived among concentrations of strangers, and especially among kids and their caregivers.
Just the other day, I was pushing my girls on the swings of a foreign playground (i.e. a playground in one of those other neighborhoods), and an enthusiastic dad next to us was using his toddler’s swing experience as an educational platform. He explained potential and kinetic energy in a high and bouncy voice. He introduced ‘his little rocket ship’ to various nebula and used the word catawampus at least fifty times as he incessantly chatted throughout the known universe.
Even describing him makes my blood pressure rise a little.
I wasn’t trying to be judgmental, but really, he was egging me on. After about five minutes of this, my thoughts turned ugly. “Yeah, I bet he’s so enthusiastic because he only sees his daughter for about five hours a week. He is probably one of those work-a-holics in the Carnegie Mellon robot labs or maybe Google or something like that, and now he’s got an hour with his little rocket scientist and he just needs to introduce her to advanced vocabulary so that she can grow up to be a brainiac like he is. Poor kid. Imagine what he’ll be like when she’s a bit older.”
Ugh. Sorry everyone. I am not proud of myself. He is probably just a really smart guy who likes to spend time with his daughter.
But do you see how easy it is to go there?
I’m being painfully honest here because I don’t think that I’m the only one who does this. The world of people, particularly the world of strangers, is ripe for judgment. For example:
Have you ever noticed how mean people can be to one another on the internet?
My favorite story related to this involves one of my favorite authors, Ann Voskamp. A couple of years ago her book, A Thousand Gifts, was published. One of its most negative reviews came from Tim Challies, a blogger/book reviewer. I’m not going to go into great specifics here; but he criticizes her style, picks apart her theology, and doesn’t recommend the book to his readers.
Okay. So. What’s the big deal? After all, the man is a book reviewer. And aren’t we all entitled to our opinions?
What is fascinating here is Ann’s response. The day after the review came out, she sent Tim Challies an e-mail, inviting him and his family over for dinner (they are both from Ontario). This was not a public invitation, and we wouldn’t even know that it had been given if Tim Challies hadn’t done something fascinating in return. Even before they set up dinner, he posted a public apology.
In it, he doesn’t back down from his criticisms of the book. He explains, “It bears saying as well that I feel no moral quandary about reviewing her book or any other and even warning of potential weaknesses. Any author who releases a book acknowledges that it is entering into the public sphere and may receive both praise and criticism. This is an inevitable component of making writing available to the public and it is one that authors welcome; it is an honor that other people consider your ideas worth discussing.”
He goes on.
“Having said all of that, something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox, and that’s what has compelled me to write this little article. Seeing her name brought a sudden and surprising realization and with it a twinge of guilt and remorse. It has happened to me before, this strange feeling that comes when I suddenly realize that the name on the front of the book–”Ann Voskamp” in this case–is not some cleverly programmed, unfeeling robot that spits out blog posts and magazine articles and books, but a person. A real person.”
Later he asks himself if his review would have been different–at least in tone–if he had known that they would soon be having dinner together.
This is a great question.
There is a saying-”familiarity breeds contempt”- and it is certainly true. I am sometimes stunned by my ability to be really nasty to those who are closest to me (with specific apologies to my husband, my parents and my brothers). However, I would like to propose that the reverse is also true, that unfamiliarity can also breed contempt.
As a city-dweller and a semi-frequent internet user, I interact with an overwhelming number of strangers each day. And when we are confronted with an overwhelming amount of information, what do we do? We sort. We label. We put things into categories. Granola mom. Welfare mom. Delinquent teenager. Spoiled brat. Workaholic. High-maintenance. Hard-working. Obsessed with technology. Hopelessly outdated.
On and on and on.
With each label comes our own personal script, which can be positive or negative. For example, a few years ago I realized that I was stereotyping the elderly black men of my community as automatically trustworthy. My unconscious reasoning was that they were pillars of the community because they had survived (thus rising above) the often volatile circumstances of growing up male and black in the city. One day a good friend (who was young, male, black and extremely gracious) set me straight. ”Not necessarily Jen” he said, “some were just tough and lucky. You should hear the things that some of your ‘pillars of the community’ brag about.”
Look at that–elderly black men are individuals. Imagine.
But while I’m on a roll here, let me make one more sweeping generalization, and I’ll stick by this one:
People are always, always, always complicated. All of them. All the time. From our closest friends to absolute strangers–complicated. Full of motives and stories and contradictions and beauty and pain. Complicated beyond our understanding, even beyond our imagining.
Complicated. And this is the reason why we should be careful to judge. Unfamiliarity can only breed contempt if we fail to remind ourselves that strangers are people. That the enthusiastic ‘rocket scientist dad’ is just as much of a real, complicated person as this long-winded ‘blogging mom.’
It makes me wonder what could have happened if I had looked his way and said, “What does catawampus mean, anyway?”