evening when Ben was eight years old, he toted
along a baseball glove to a karate class and
forgot to bring it home. The next week, as I was
leaving to drive him to the class, Evie reminded
me to ask the school's custodian about the mitt.
"He's very nice," she said, "and
will surely help you find it. But he's partially
deaf. You'll have to get close to him and
pronounce your words very clearly."
She then asked if I would
recognize the custodian when I saw him. I replied
that, yes, I knew exactly who he was.
He was there every Tuesday
evening, a short but stocky, unshaven man, in a
worn corduroy suit. He usually spent the hour
slumped against the wall near the entrance to the
cafeteria where the class was held.
When we arrived, he was there as
usual. I walked up to him, and with my face about
a foot from his proceeded to speak at twice my
normal volume. "Have you seen a child's
baseball mitt around the school?" I asked,
distinctly enunciating each word. "My boy
left one here last Tuesday night."
He looked puzzled. I suspected I
hadn't spoken clearly enough and needed to raise
the volume. I opened my mouth to repeat the
question more audibly, but at that instant was
stopped by a mortifying thought. In a lowered
voice I asked him, "Are you the school
"No," he replied.
"My boy's in this class and I'm waiting for
I probably would have died on the
spot were it not for the man's good humor. He
added with a grin, "the county could never
afford to hire me."
The Compulsion to Label
What dismays me as I think back
on this experience is how quickly and
unreflectively I had formed an opinion of this
man and then never questioned it. While my
assumption was a fairly innocent one concerning
his job, it brings to mind how we can label
others in more unfortunate ways that touch on
their moral character or mental well-being.
Such labeling is a compulsive
process that we can scarcely avoid completely.
Yet the tragedy isn't that our first impressions
so often are inaccurate, but that they so easily
get locked in concrete. They become still-life
pictures which never change.
We shouldn't underestimate how
hard it can be to revise our first impressions.
In his Shyness, Philip Zimbardo describes
a bold and astonishing experiment which
psychologist David Rosenhan orchestrated to prove
himself committed to a number of mental hospitals
in different parts of the country. A group of his
students did likewise. Each one went to the
admissions office complaining of hearing voices
and ominous sounds. Nothing more. It was enough
to get them put behind locked doors. After that,
each of these mock patients began to act
perfectly normal. The question being studied was
how long it would take before they were detected
as "normal" and discharged. The answer
was "never." The original label of
"psychotic" was never replaced by
"normal." Getting out required
assistance from wives, friends, or lawyers.*
The situation which Rosenhan
concocted, of course, was unusual and extreme.
I'm not suggesting that mental health
professionals are typically guilty of biased
judgment. Their insights are often invaluable.
Yet his experiment demonstrates how even those
who are professionally trained to understand
human nature can have difficulty revising their
initial perceptions of others.
The problem will likely be even
greater for the rest of us. We may be carrying
static impressions of others--family members,
friends, classmates or business associates--which
hit wide of the mark.
Just as unfortunate can be our
tendency to label ourselves. Christ is working to
change our lives, yet often the greatest barrier
is our difficulty in letting go of old
Throughout his earthly ministry
Jesus showed perfect insight into people.
"He knew what was in a man" (John
2:25). Yet what is even more impressive--and
challenging to us--is that he viewed people not
statically but dynamically. The still-life
pictures that form the basis of so much human
judgment simply did not exist in his mind. He saw
people in terms of their possibilities.
His encounter with the woman at
the well outside Samaria is a prime example (John
4). Not only had she been stigmatized by her
society, but she had a terribly low perception of
herself. So great was her dread of contact with
other Samaritans that she ventured for water at
the most unlikely time of day in a desert
region--high noon--and to a well outside the city
Jesus was under no illusions
about her past. He brought up memories she was
quick to repress. "You have had five
husbands, and the man you now have is not your
husband," he reminded her (v 18).
Yet he also showed great respect
for her, privileging her with a private
discussion about his messiahship.
Following her conversation with
Jesus, the woman broke out of her shell. She
returned to Samaria and declared to numerous
people, "Come, see a man who told me
everything I ever did. Could this be the
John minces no words about the
woman's effectiveness in arousing her
townspeople's interest in Jesus. "They came
out of the town and made their way toward him. .
. . Many of the Samaritans from that town
believed in him because of the woman's testimony.
. . . And because of his words many more became
believers" (vv 30, 39, 41).
What's most interesting is that
Jesus allowed her to play this critical
evangelistic role. She ignited one of the most
stunning explosions of interest in Christ
recorded in the New Testament. And all because
Jesus saw beyond her immediate condition to a
vision of what she could become.
Examples like this, of course,
could be multiplied from the Gospels. But the
best part is that Paul tells us that we who
follow Christ have the mind of Christ (I Cor
2:16). We have the same capacity to see people
dynamically that Jesus had!
Yet such expanded vision does not
come naturally to us, even as Christians. It only
grows out of an ever-deepening relationship with
Christ. Here is one of our greatest incentives
for spending time alone with Christ. Through it
our heart is expanded to see others in the
farsighted way he views them. And our vision for
our own life is broadened beyond all the
boundaries we place upon it.
Satan will do whatever he can to
fossilize our thinking--to give us stagnant
pictures of others and ourselves. Christ sees
human life with vision. And that dynamic outlook
is contagious. But we must stay close to the
source to be infected by it.