Here’s a true story told by Steven Covey in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (p. 30–31). Covey uses this story to illustrate ‘paradigm shift.’ The story illustrates the way we look at people, for better or worse.
Sunday morning on a subway in New York.
People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’
What happens at that instance is revolutionizing. You think of the man in a totally different way. You think of those children in a more forgiving way. You look beyond your irritation, and see reality in the lives of other people. The way you look at people changes.
Looking beyond faces and into lives is something that the following video emphasizes. (The video is part of the training curriculum for Chick-Fil-A employees.)
The way we look at people is important. Whether it’s self-centered myopia or judgmental condescension, we sometimes do it wrong. As I’ve thought about the way I view people, these three thoughts helped me:
- Often, the way I label someone is blind stereotyping. A teen. A kid. A woman. An African-American. A Hispanic. These labels aren’t inherently bad, but they can blind us to the reality that this is a person, an individual made in the image of God. People possess dignity and worth. They have a soul. They have struggles. They have needs.
- What I see on the surface is not the whole picture. Regardless of how a person looks—successful, homeless, beautiful, disabled, etc.—their lives have a story that their appearance cannot totally convey. I must learn to look beyond appearance, not in a way that jumps to conclusions or forms judgments, but in a way that recognizes personhood and depth.
- How I look at a person will affect how I treat that person. Perhaps that is why changing the way we look at people is so important. My view of people shapes how I respond to that person, whether in my mind or in my actions toward them. Vision affects behavior. Sadly, often my view of people and the resulting actions, are not what they should be.
I’m left with this conclusion: I should look at people in the way that Jesus looked at people. That seems to present a bit of a problem however, because I lack omniscience. Jesus knew every detail of every person’s heart and mind. But whether or not I have omniscience is irrelevant to the discussion. I don’t need to know that someone was just diagnosed with cancer, or that they recently suffered a devastating financial loss, or are seething with hatred for a spouse. I simply need to be empathetic, patient, and willing to listen and help.
When Jesus looked at people, He saw needs. He felt compassion. He loved. He served. He died. As a follower of Jesus, I am called to the same type of self-denying, others-serving behavior, regardless of what I think of people, regardless of how they’ve treated me, and regardless of what I see or don’t see in their lives. That’s how I want to look at people — not as a source of personal infringement, not as an annoyance, not as a consumer — but as a person with needs.
We’re called to love, and love has zero qualifications (1 Corinthians 13).