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when our son Ben was eight years old, he toted along a baseball glove
to a karate class he was attending at our local middle school, and then
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 my 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’s custodian?”
“No,” he replied. “My boy’s in this class and I’m waiting for him.”
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 that never change.
We shouldn’t underestimate how hard it can be to revise our first impressions. In his book Shyness, Philip Zimbardo describes a bold and astonishing experiment which psychologist David Rosenhan orchestrated to prove the point.
[He] had 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 that 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--that 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 self-perceptions.
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 limits.
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 Christ?” (v 39).
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.
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