Some memories make me wince. Things that I’ve done or said in the past seemed like a good idea at the time. They weren’t. In my worst moments, I can be pretty hard on myself about it.
It took me a while to realize that there’s a connection between how I respond to my younger self and the perspective I take on other people in the present. When I’m blaming, judging, or impatient with others, that’s precisely the lens I use to see myself.
Things began to shift for me after wrestling with a question Brené Brown poses: Do you think that people are doing the best they can?
I invite you to ask yourself that question. Think about the person who irritates you or angers you the most. Now, ask yourself, “Are they doing the best they can?”
If you’re familiar with Dr. Brown’s work, you may have heard that her initial response was, “@*#% no!” And you probably know that she came to believe that we are better off when our answer is, “Yes!”
As much as I admire Dr. Brown’s work, I couldn’t see how she moved from “no” to “yes.” Sure, there are plenty of trustworthy, hardworking, generous people.
But let’s be honest. Humans bruise, deceive, and belittle each other every single day. Violence, greed, and selfishness litter our planet. Could I really say that everybody is doing their best?
The turning point for me arrived when I realized that Dr. Brown does not hypothesize about everyone’s motives or intentions.
She is not suggesting that we stop holding each other accountable for our actions or that we turn a blind eye to destructive and self-destructive patterns of behavior.
Instead, she helped me recognize that we can choose to shift the perspective from which we see people: others and ourselves.
To put it in my own Gospel-shaped language, everybody’s life is messy. But if you’ll take the time and the effort and the emotional risk to look, you’ll see the image of God shimmering in the midst of it.
Human beings are created in the image of God. By our very nature we are messengers of God. Just by existing, we announce God’s being.
And here’s the really tricky bit. God’s very being, God’s essence, is love. Perfect, unremitting, infinite love. Humans? Humans can be shockingly unloving. St. Augustine recognized that contradiction.
That’s why he defined sin as disordered loves. We can love the wrong things or the right things in the wrong way. For instance, I can treat status, money, or power as my “god,” as the thing without which my life would lose all meaning.
But Brown helped me to see something at once deeper and more ordinary.
Even in our best and most tender moments, our love is finite and imperfect. We grow tired and distracted. We misunderstand and draw on faulty assumptions. We communicate awkwardly. And we can find God in the midst of it.
Part of what it means to follow Jesus—to follow God in the flesh—is to believe that we can brush up against the Holy in this finite, imperfect, messy world. In every real, finite, imperfect person we come across.
I’ve come to believe that John the Baptist was getting at a similar point.
When the religious authorities heard that huge crowds were gathering to hear him preach and to receive his baptism of repentance, they came to check him out. If he was claiming to be the Messiah, they wanted to shut him down.
John admitted that his role in God’s mission was far humbler. He was no Messiah. He was just an imperfect messenger pointing to the perfect one who had already arrived. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (John 1:27)
Each of us is only human. We love imperfectly and our life is a messy place. But as it turns out, God’s perfect love expresses itself through imperfect people in messy places.