“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” –Fred Rogers
Have you ever felt as though someone has formed an idea of you based on one interaction you had, a comment you made, or even based on another person’s opinion of you? Have you ever—intentionally or not—thought that you had someone “figured out” after meeting them, hearing his or her opinion in class or a meeting, or even just from talking about his or her favorite movies? What I’m trying to get at is that even when we don’t realize we’re doing it, we often make assumptions about other people before we truly get to know them. Personally, I tend to take a while to warm up to people and more than once have been mistaken for having a very serious and somber personality when I’m actually a fairly light-hearted person.
It’s natural to want to have someone figured out because it would help us more easily know how to act around them or to what types of conversations they would respond well or poorly; however I think it is something we are called to reflect more critically on as well. Making judgments about someone has the potential to cause harm, to be hurtful, to be divisive. When we think we have someone figured out, we no longer view that individual for who she is but for who we perceive her to be, which is unfair to both that individual and to ourselves. The times I have felt most misunderstood or unheard have been times that I feel someone has come into a conversation with preconceived ideas about my opinions and therefore does not actually hear what I have to say.
On the flip side, the most life-giving conversations, encounters, and relationships in my life have been ones in which I have been invited to be myself. To be heard for who I am rather than as the place I come from, the church I belong to, my gender or any other label I own or that someone else places on me. And when I approach others with an attitude of openness and wonder, I find that I learn more about others and myself, that I have a greater appreciation for the person’s story because I am able to really hear it.
Sometimes I find myself getting discouraged by how easily we label one another because in doing so, we lose out on so many opportunities to grow in relationship and to expand our own worldviews. I am definitely guilty of writing people off because of my first impression of them, but I think recognizing when we do this is an important step to cultivating better practices of attentiveness towards one another. It often feels safer not venturing past our perceptions of people because then we are able to “control” them in a way, or at least control how we want to see them. When we truly hear one another’s voices, stories, joys, and struggles, we let go of that control and accept the person in front of us as he or she is. When we begin to hear one another’s stories, we cannot help but see each other differently. We begin to see all people as fellow humans, each carrying his or her own burdens, gifts, to-do lists, memories, heartache, and joy. And that’s what being human is all about.