Seeing People Right

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My first response was ‘How sad. He’s so disabled. It’s nice that he can get out in the sun at all, but how hard this must be for his Mom and the whole family.’  That was my judgment of the situation, but as judgments so often do, it missed most of the story.

When I took time to really look, it seemed the boy was having a great time.  He was smiling; he was affectionate with his mother and older sister.  He got to go down the slide, lying sideways across it, held by his sister, and he laughed happily every time he did it. She and Mom seemed to be having a good time, too.

It dawned on me that I had no idea what these folks’ experience was. The boy had never lived in another body.  He had nothing with which to compare his experience, so he may have been perfectly at peace with what he was. He could have felt any way at all; I had no way of knowing.

Now I realize that’s true for almost anyone we encounter.  Patients in nursing homes might be miserable with their situations.  But not always. Some might spend their days in meditation. Some are like my friend Shirley, who is hoping for another 30 years in her immobile body. She enjoys nursing home life, although she is completely dependent.

That’s true on the upside also. We look at people who are rich, famous, or powerful, and we think they must really enjoy life. The ones I’ve met do not.

A one-time friend of mine had a six-figure job in high-end sales for some years, and he told me all his similarly well-off colleagues were miserable. All of them. They were frustrated that their dreams hadn’t come true; they were afraid of losing what they had. He chose to give up the job to pursue a career in bicycle racing. Which may or may not have made him any happier -he was kind of a strange guy –  but he said he never regretted giving up the money.

So good or bad, we can’t know other people’s states of mind from outward appearances. Our judgment of their lives probably says more about us than about them. My plan is to cut back on thinking I know how someone is doing, especially to cut back on looking at their suffering. Instead, look harder at their successes and the beauty that they bring to the world. Better yet, try to see them as they are without evaluating them at all.

It might be especially important to do this with people I’m actually close to, not just strangers at a playground. How often do we limit our awareness and appreciation of the people around us by drawing conclusions about them based on our limited knowledge and our own prejudices? I need to stop that.

It may take a lot of looking sometimes, but I think I will appreciate people more if I don’t try to put them in categories or wrap them in a mental package. Maybe I will be better at helping people be who they are, instead of trying to change them or label them.  Judging them will always get in the way, so let’s try not doing it for a while and see how that goes.

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6 Responses to Seeing People Right

  1. Patricia Monagle says:

    Beautiful ideas and quite inspirational. It is well written and concise, but it certainly leads to a deluge of past judgements rendered from my limited point of view. Certainly,
    Stephen Hawkings has enjoyed his life all these many years. I believe it is not just limited to uninformed judgements that one makes these calls, but also to fear.

  2. Rose says:

    This is one of my favorite posts. I’ve been volunteering with L’Arche and learning more about developmental disability, and I think your post makes a beautiful point. Andrew Solomons book “Far From the Tree” has some insights you might appreciate.

  3. Emily Coles says:

    I always enjoy your writing, David! Such good food for thought 🙂 Thank you!

  4. Donna Vogel says:

    There is a corollary in how we reward or show appreciation for people: Better to give recognition that the person would like, not what we ourselves would want to receive.

  5. M Evans says:

    Yes. Too easy to feel one is thinking/understanding, when actually judging/assuming.

  6. Nurse Tim of the Yukon says:

    Hey, this is meaningful stuff, enjoyed it.

    One of the miracles in life is that we can still experience joy even in the midst of our sufferings. Some of the strongest people I’ve met may appear as the weakest; it has nothing to do with physical ability. I have learned so much from people I have cared for over the years, it is humbling. It has been a journey from enablement, to one of empowerment- this has made all the difference.

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