I’ve been thinking about how people react to each other, prompted in part by Beth’s post on Mercy over on Journey and in part by some things I’ve experienced that came up as I was reflecting on her post. Often, when people do or say something hurtful to ourselves or to those we love, our first reaction is to want to lash out at them. But something a priest said in a homily the other day – in a completely different context – made me think about this. He was talking about the promise by Christ that if we followed Him, among the things we would receive a hundred-fold is persecution. And he said that persecution meant there was something visible about our discipleship that another person either feared or hated. For me, that put the focus on the other person and was an invitation to examine, what do they fear? What do they hate? And I think that it helpful in this context.
The lashing out reaction comes from keeping the focus on the aggreived – on me or on the person I feel is being hurt. But maybe what we need to do is focus on the person whose action or words created the situation and ask, where did that come from? What is the pain or the fear or the insecurity in them that prompted them to say or do whatever it is that I find bothersome or offensive?
As I had that thought, what came to my mind were words from Atticus Finch to his daughter Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus tells Scout, “First of all, if you can learn a simple trick Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Or, as Scout later remembers Atticus saying, “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
I think there is something to this advice. We can stand in our own shoes and get all hot and bothered by what others say and do. Or we can try to understand what it feels like to be in their skin, in their shoes. That is not necessarily very easy. It typically requires that we look underneath what is being expressed on the surface to see what is being masked by that surface emotion or suface expression of the emotion. (I’m thinking as I write this of a conversation I had with a friend the other night where it was clear to me that the person’s anger at “the enemy” was a defense to the pain of a loss.) And of course it then requires us to choose whether to react to the surface expression or to what is underneath.
It may not be easy to understand what it is like to be in someone else’s skin. But I think it is out of that understanding that the mercy and compassion of which Beth speaks in her post will flow more easily.