January 19, 2017
Weekly letter to the Bishop Chatard High School parents:
Some of the best advice I have ever received was given to me about six years ago. It was the first night I worked with HOOP, an organization serving the unsheltered homeless in and around downtown Indianapolis. We bring food, clothing, blankets, hats, gloves, etc. to homeless people living along the river or under bridges. Steve, the crew leader for the night, was putting me through a brief orientation. He told me, “When someone comes forward and tells us what they need, we don’t second guess their needs. We just serve them.”
Then the life-changing advice came: “We don’t judge people because we don’t know their story.” That advice hit me hard and has stuck with me. It has changed how I interact with people – all people, not just the homeless. It has helped me become a less judgmental person, and a more compassionate one.
It can be challenging not to judge behaviors based solely on appearance and experience. We tend to paint people with some pretty wide brushes. That student was just disrespectful to me. Was that a disrespectful student or is something driving the behavior? The parent in my office is being very unreasonable. Is this an unreasonable parent or is something driving the behavior? This teacher has been snapping at students for two days. Is this just an angry teacher or is something driving the behavior?
It can also be challenging not to match attitudes that are presented to us. For example, if someone approaches us with anger, we are likely to show anger in return. If someone addresses us using a sharp or sarcastic tone, we will likely use a similar tone in our response.
What would happen if our initial response to all of the aforementioned situations was simply, “I don’t know their story, so I will not judge their behavior.”
Has the disrespectful student just broken up with her boyfriend? Is the seemingly unreasonable parent at the end of her rope for some reason? Is the snapping teacher battling marital problems or financial hardship? Has the person showing anger or using a sharp tone just lost a loved one? Just lost a job? Been battling depression?
Such reflection could eliminate a potentially negative response, and open the door to some positive possibilities. Maybe we could counter their attitude or behavior by treating them with love and compassion. If something else is driving their behavior, they will appreciate our patience and understanding. If there is nothing driving the behavior (i.e. they are just disrespectful, unreasonable, or angry), we at least set a good example for them. Perhaps we could even take it a step further by opening up a dialogue with the person, showing genuine concern and asking how we can help.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I never find myself saying, “I wish I had judged them.