Different Path vs. Wrong Path

A friend recently raised with me the question of the difficulty of drawing the line between where people are just different from the self and where another is truly on the wrong path. This is not an unimportant distinction. Many of us are involved in helping others discern their vocation. And even those who are not so involved tend to make judgments about decisions other people have made. So, for all of us, the ability to distinguish between “X is not a good path for me” and “X is not a good path for anyone” or “X is not a good path for a particular person” is necessary and not always easy.

As I reflected on the question, I had a number of thoughts. The first is that merely recognizing the difference among those questions is important. I think for many people, “not right for me” becomes too easily translated as “not right.” So to recognize the difference between other people being different from me and other people being wrong…and to approach the issue of another’s calling with humility…is itself important.

The second was the recognition that I have no problem saying that some paths are simply wrong paths for anyone. I am quite comfortable, for example, saying that one reliable criteria for judging the action of another is: if the person is taking a path that brings harm to himself/herself or to others, it is a wrong path. That is, that it is never right to do something that inflicts self-harm or harm on others. (I recognize there may be disagreement about whether certain things are harmful to the self or others, but I assume no disagreement with the general conclusion that harming self and others is wrong.)

The next question I asked myself was: what other criteria can we bring to this? What else is helpful in distinguishing between not right for me and not right for another?

One criterion seems to me: from my observation and knowledge of the person, does this path best utilize his/her real/unique gifts? For me, this question is theologically based. That is, I view our gifts and talents as gifts from God that are given to us to use. Under that view, our gifts are a sacred trust that we abuse by not using them as well as we can. However, even if one does not share my theological basis, the question seems a valid way to approach the issue.

Obviously answering that question requires that I can accurately evaluate the person’s gifts and talents and that I have the ability the fit between a set of gifts and a particular job. But assuming I can, I don’t think I have any hesitation speaking up to someone who seemed bent on a path that seemed wildly disconnected from his gifts. Harkening back to the humility observation, before doing so it seems to me important to ask myself: am I sure that I am evaluating this person’s gifts and the job requirements fairly? Am I sure I am not projecting my own views here? But I do think it is possible to make that distinction.

Similarly, with the same caveats about checking my own ability to judge and ensuring that my own biases are not operating, I might ask myself: from my observation and knowledge of this person, from the times I have seen this person most alive, does this seem a path that will bring them joy, that will be life-giving to them.

You might come up with other formulations, which is fine. (I probably will to as I think about it some more.) The point is, there needs to be some conscious way of distinguishing between wrong for me…wrong…and wrong for a particular other person. If we are not conscious about those distinctions, wrong for me can to easily be the standard by which we judge everyone else.