From Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral:
You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be…. You come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals . . . and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception … so ill-equipped are we all to envision another’s interior workings and invisible aims.
That captures for me what I find so difficult about managing relationships. I don’t have a clue what is going on inside the people around me. Even on my best days, I cannot see the real motives and hurts behind what people say or do. I’ve made good guesses on rare occasions, but most of my efforts to speculate the inner workings of another human being have failed.
The early church struggled with this, too. When the question came up of whether or not the new Gentile believers had to be circumcised to prove their heart, Paul put the burden on God to know their motives: “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).
My only recourse is in following the example and word of Christ. The greatest commandment in Scripture wasn’t to “figure people out.” Jesus stated it directly from the Levitical law: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I think we spend our lives learning to live that out, but I am beginning to see that it doesn’t include making assumptions about the someone’s motives or categorizing them with strict labels.
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