February 21st, 2023
How many people do I actually know? I mean really know. I’m not talking about “friends” on Facebook, or any of the other social media. I am talking about how many people are there in my life that I truly understand. I would have to say that there are very few of those people, in truth, perhaps none at all.
We live in a society where people are very busy. I’m not sure why that is. We generally work too many hours, and we long for leisure time. Then, when we do get a break, we completely fill the empty time with activities. We are perpetual motion machines. We never sit still. We can’t quiet our minds. We are unable to truly observe the world around us. We don’t know how to listen.
The fact that I do not really know many people is partly due to this incessant busyness. To learn about another person requires time. When I use the word “time”, I am not talking about a few minutes, or an hour, or even an entire day. My wife and I have been married for almost thirty-nine years. I still don’t know all that I should know about her, and she doesn’t know everything about me. A human being is a mystery. A person may be like an incredibly deep well, or like an onion with an endless number of layers. You can never get to the core of the individual, although it might be worthwhile to try.
I don’t think that we even try. I think that we often go with a first impression of another person, and promptly slap a label on them. We are willing to accept a one-dimensional understanding of the man or woman. After a short conversation with someone, we might think to ourselves, “He’s just a damn liberal”, or “She’s not too smart”. We find a pigeonhole for a particular individual and stuff them inside of it. Once we’ve done that, we can safely ignore them and move on to the next person. Sometimes, we don’t even wait for the first impression. We judge somebody on hearsay and have them in a pigeonhole before we ever lay eyes on them or hear them speak.
I have found first impressions to be notoriously inaccurate. I remember the first time my wife and I attended a Bible study group mostly made up of Evangelicals. When we got there, I already had an idea in my head of what these people would be like. My first impression of the group confirmed that notion. Karin and I participated in the Bible study every Saturday afternoon for years. Slowly, I came to realize that each person in the group had their own unique history, and their own quirky behaviors. One older gentleman was a German immigrant. His father had been a soldier in the Wehrmacht in WWII and had been a Russian POW until 1955. The old guy in the Bible study was a pacifist because of his father’s trauma. There was a woman in the group who was a single mom, struggling to raise her teenage daughter. The group’s host was a management type in an airline. One guy had been an Army platoon leader during the Vietnam era. Each person at the Bible study had their own story. It took me a long time to understand that fact. It took me even longer to get to know them as individuals.
It takes time to get to know someone. It also takes work. To understand the various participants in the Bible study group, I had to listen. That’s hard, at least it is for me. Active listening is a skill that requires patience and focus. I always wanted to analyze, judge, and then reply to the other person. It was often a struggle to actually hear what they were saying, and just take it in.
I still pigeonhole people sometimes. Sometimes I am busy. Sometimes I am just lazy. It’s never fair to the other person when I do that. It makes them less than human. It isn’t even fair to me because I am cheating myself out of an enriching experience, and perhaps a friendship.