By Thomas Lane Butts, Special Contributor…
Within our constellation of relationships we tend to be part of the problem or a part of the solution. Although we lack the wisdom and the right to become involved in the problems of everyone we meet, it is important for us to develop some understanding of why people are like they are, and how we can relate to problem people and people who have problems.
Most of us would be startled to know what is going on in the lives of people with whom we brush elbows daily. In fact, we can’t even know what is going on in the inner recesses of those with whom we live. If you but knew the inner struggles and mounting fears, the personal tragedy and conflict, the gnawing feelings of inadequacy and the suppressed thoughts and urges which lurk in the dark depths of the lives of people around you, you would be surprised.
Occasionally we catch a glimpse of the private world of another as we observe behaviors, but like the visible tip of an iceberg, what we see is but a small part of the total picture of that person’s life.
It is easy to criticize people whose behaviors fail to meet our personal standards, but our judgment and criticism are generally the result of our ignorance rather than our superiority. If we only knew the conditions that motivate others’ behavior, we would more likely come to their aid rather than stand back and criticize.
Have you ever caught a big fish and had him give you a real fight before you could land him? Great fun! But have you ever wondered what the other fish down there thought when they saw their old friend suddenly start thrashing wildly for no apparent reason? His behavior must have seemed inexplicably strange. If the other fish had known that he was hooked and hurting, they could have better understood why he was acting so unlike himself. Behavior, whether odd and antisocial or routine but irritating, is often born of internal battles and painful hooks that are difficult to see or understand.
The boisterous bully whose conduct is repulsive is very likely an insecure person trying to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. If you fight or scorn the bully, you will not change his behavior, but you may deepen his problem and confirm his fear of inadequacy. If you treat him with love and respect you may become a helpful friend. While your efforts may not break him from his antisocial ways, at least you will make sure that his ways do not become your ways. People who are hard to live with are very likely having a hard time living with themselves. Behind their macho facades they are battling with unresolved problems. You can return hostility for hostility, but in the process you will become a part of their problem and thus allow their problem to become yours.
It is easy to fall into the widespread illusion that we can help people by denouncing their faults. This is an illusion all too commonly practiced in the name of religion. In his book, Guilt and Grace, Dr. Paul Tournier describes the general harmfulness of unsolicited criticism and the spirit of judgment we find so easy to exercise. At one point, Dr. Tournier says categorically, “All criticism is destructive.” Any time you hear someone say, “I don’t mean to criticize, but . . .” you may be sure that they are lying and that criticism is their intent.
In his book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, psychiatrist Gordon Livingston says that he often asks people in conflict to withhold criticism of those around them. He says that it is amazing how radical this suggestion seems to many people. They seem to think, “If I give up criticizing and directing those around me, chaos will ensue. Though I am not in charge, I know that without me keeping them straight, work projects will not be done on time and the business will go bankrupt—if they don’t change their attitude the government will fall into ruin—it is my responsibility to tell my fellow workers what they are doing wrong! And at home, if I don’t ride my family, the dishes will pile up, rooms will not be cleaned, homework will be ignored, school failure will ensue, followed by drug abuse, pregnancy, and a life of crime. I can’t let this happen.” Describing this essentially pessimistic view of human nature, Dr. Livingston opines that our negative expectations are generally realized.
Most of us are ill-equipped to tell someone else what to do because of the imperfection of our own knowledge and our own life. We encounter people every day who are wounded, distressed, and oppressed, and whose daily struggle with life is a more serious battle than we would ever dream, but it is not our duty, no matter how tempting it may be, to impose our unsolicited judgment and advice on people. To do so is unkind and perhaps dangerous.
In every relationship, no matter how deep or casual it may be, the first rule is to do no harm.
The Rev. Butts, a retired minister in the Alabama-West Florida Conference, is pastor emeritus at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, Ala. This essay first appeared in the Monroe Journal and is printed here with permission.