Saturday, May 01, 2010

Providing a Way to Encourage the Best in Other People

So much of my life I spend cynically griping about the bad side of human nature. The work I do every day frequently centers around a ceaseless source of constant frustration. Seeking strategies to reform destructive behaviors is the basic skill set of many professions and basic activism. Influencing people so that they might understand the correct means of conducting their lives is a substantial challenge and a constant energy drain. I'm sure many of you understand this quandary all too well. While it is true that we all possess a dark side, some more than others, recent events in my life have provided a unexpected but welcome sense of clarity and perspective. I note with joy over the past three days that I have, much to my great surprise, seen the very best in people. Once again I am humbled to have been proven incorrect in my assumptions about others.

You see, on Wednesday, I was in a traffic accident. While walking across the street on my way to the gym, I was blindsided by an oncoming shuttle bus. The vehicle either ran the light or failed to recognize that I, walking in a pedestrian crossing, had the right of way. I am okay, and fortunately not seriously injured but my right leg was hurt in the process of seeking to avoid the collision. The driver lingered long enough to determine that I had not been knocked to the pavement, then quickly continued on to wherever it was he was supposed to be going. Suffice to say, at that precise point in time, I was not exactly a believer in the idea that people are basically good at heart.

As the shock of the situation eventually gave way yet again to clear-headed analysis, I tried to make sense of what had just transpired. Increasingly these days, I have applied the same query to whichever intense, sometimes painful situation in which I have found myself: What is God trying to teach me? As far as this instance is concerned, I think I have been granted a partial answer, one that blindsided me just as surely as did the shuttle bus.

To wit, my eyes have truly been opened. Since the accident happened, I have seen the very best in completely strangers. People have offered me their seat on the bus or the rail, have opened doors for me, or have shown me a thousands acts of simple kindness. Their behavior is very touching, though I admit I am not used to it at all. I have been independent and self-reliant for a long time. It embarrasses me a bit to see this outpouring of assistance, mainly because I dislike calling undo attention onto myself. However, I do admit that everything that others have offered unselfishly has been a huge help. A person limping down a busy city street, or boarding a bus, or waiting in a Metro rail station sticks out dramatically and quite unintentionally calls attention to his or her limitations. Based on what had happened before, I believed people would be just as callous towards me as was the driver of the offending vehicle, but the reverse has proven to be true.

It is written,

Live within my love. When you obey me you are living in my love, just as I obey my Father and live in his love. I have told you this to so that you will be filled with joy. Yes, your cup of joy will overflow! I demand that you love each other as much as I love you. And here is how to measure it--there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

I suppose I could now complain about how we need to act this way towards each other every day, especially to those who do not have obvious limitations. Yet, if I adopt this attitude, I step right back into the same mindset that I mentioned earlier, one which I usually present to the world like a uniform. Though I would be correct in putting it in that fashion, such an attitude can quickly turn to self-righteousness. I'd rather focus first on other ways of looking at this situation. You see, I have learned through this entire ordeal that if we provide a way for each other to let the best parts of us shine through, most people, I find, will respond with compassion and empathy. This revelation is the most powerful of all.

Here, a familiar story which needs no introduction. Many of us have committed it to memory over the years. Even those who are not people of faith, I have discovered, find little within it to disagree. Forgive me for one more retelling. I personally need to be reminded regularly and consistently of the lessons it teaches, lest I get too caught up in the hustle and bustle of my own busy life.

The man [an expert in the law] wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side. Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him.

He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, 'Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I'll pay you the next time I'm here.' Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

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