People are more than one thing.
Our worst moments do not define us. None of us is merely petty, angry, stubborn, self-absorbed, impatient, or hypocritical. We can also be kind, selfless, courageous, persistent, curious, and honest.
Everybody operates from mixed motives. Some selfless and some self-serving. We strive to get this life thing right and still manage to stumble. Sadly, we can be awfully hard on each other—and terribly hard on ourselves—for our missteps and boneheadedness.
Perfectionism probably plays a role in this. It’s difficult for us to tolerate flaws. And we’re also unpracticed in holding incongruities and contradictions in meaningful tension.
We might ask, “How can this same person be kind and inconsiderate?” We may figure that the kindness must be a facade meant to conceal the true, inconsiderate self. Or we may take the inverse strategy. We reckon that the thoughtless act was out of character. It’s not who they really are.
If you’re like me, you have wrestled with similar thoughts about yourself. Sometimes I do an internal eye roll at somebody else’s opinion or silently condemn a person’s moral failures. And then in retrospect I’m appalled at myself. Is all my talk about loving your neighbor just talk? Am I really just a judgmental, self-satisfied jerk?
Well, let me tell you the answer that gives me peace. “Yes. I can be unloving and judgmental. But that is not all that I am. Not by a long shot.” In addition to helping me live more comfortably in my own skin, that answer nudges me toward a more abiding love of neighbor.
Like I said, people are more than one thing. Everybody is a mixed bag. With that starting point, I can imagine a very different community from the harsh, conflict-laden one we’re presently creating for ourselves.
As Brene Brown likes to say, everybody is doing their best. Now it’s obvious that our best is not always especially exemplary or praiseworthy. We have internal struggles and less than laudable impulses. We need to be honest with ourselves and take personal responsibility.
When it comes to others, we need to draw boundaries, to hold them accountable, and sometimes even to protect ourselves from their violent, destructive behavior.
And yet we do well to recognize that learning to do better is part of the human project. As Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Instead of condemning each other and rejecting each other, we can learn to walk in mercy with one another. We can help each other know better and be better.
It seems to me that we’re all a mixed bag of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly probably. That explains why I love stories that tell us about the struggles of Jesus’s first followers. Take this one for example. (Mark 9:30-37)
Jesus and his disciples were walking through Galilee. Along the way he had a private chat with them. He explained that the Roman Empire would torture and crucify him. On the third day God would raise him from the dead. Mind you, this is the second time that he had told his friends this.
Once they got to Capernaum, Jesus asked them, “So, what were you arguing about on the road?” Embarrassed, they fell silent. In that moment they realized that Jesus’s teaching had not yet gotten into their marrow.
They had been arguing about who was the greatest. You don’t argue about who the greatest is unless you want to be better than somebody else. And that very desire is contrary to the way of the cross and the empty tomb.
Instead of losing patience with them, Jesus recognized that his friends were still learning. So he took another tack. Here’s how he characterized walking the way of the cross and the resurrection in our daily lives: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35b)
We are not on this planet to get ahead of anyone else. We’re all learning to do better as best we can. And we need each other to do that.
We are here to learn to let go of narrow self-centered ways so that God can raise us to greater life. A life animated by divine love and devoted to the common good.
People are more than one thing. Be patient with yourself. As Maya Angelou put it, “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” Show that same graciousness to others.
We’re all still learning. And learning takes time.