Human beings are unusual in that the way we tend to feel about others is often based on the way we treat them, and that the way we think about ourselves is based on the way that others treat us. This suggests both a great deal of danger as well as opportunity. The danger comes that we may fancy ourselves to be good judges of the worth of other people, and that our mistreatment of others may lead us in a spiral of further dehumanization of others, with dire and potentially extreme circumstances. The danger also comes in that if we are mistreated, especially consistently so, we may easily see ourselves through the biased and hostile vision of our enemies and oppressors, and have no idea of our true worth to God or others. The opportunity comes in that if we want to think better of others, often all we have to do is treat others better and then let cognitive dissonance do the rest, by convincing us that others are actually worthwhile people in order to validate and justify our good treatment of them. To be sure, this may not be a common pattern of behavior outside of abusive families, but if we want to reverse the cycle of abusing others, then we have to resolve to treat others with kindness and tenderness and compassion, that we may think well of others and be disposed to treat them as we would wish to be treated ourselves.
As is often the case, the way we tend to act towards others is entirely contrary to God’s ways. While we may fancy ourselves to be good judges of the worth of others, the Bible tells us that we will be judged by the worst way we treat others. This is one of those Bible passages that keeps one up at night if one reflects deeply on it, as it is written in Matthew 25:41-46: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” In reading the severity of this judgment, one should ask oneself, are there people who need to be cared for and treated kindly who I am ignoring or worse, actively mistreating? May it never be.
Our name gives a clue to how we ought to honor others. Even though we are rewarded, or judged, for our deeds, our worth comes from our identity. After all, we are not called human doings, but human beings. This is true not only in English, but in other languages like Spanish, where human beings are called ser humanos, a nearly literal translation of the English. There are, it should be noted, some serious implications to the fact that our dignity comes from who we are, before we have done anything to merit any sort of treatment. For one, it would indicate that as soon as someone is human, and for as long as they are human, they have the full rights and honors due to any human beings. It would further suggest that those who deprive other human beings of the right to life, for example, are worthy of condemnation, whether we are dealing with the beginning of life, the end of life, or anywhere in between. So long as our identity depends on our own possession of the image and likeness of God, a privilege of our species, then our rights trump the convenience of anyone else. The implications of this are profound when it comes to before life and early childhood and end of life issues, as might be easily understood.
I often ponder the generational cycles of different forms of abuse as one of the ways in which the repercussions of the sins of the fathers (and mothers) are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation. These patterns appear to operate by setting up a pattern by which we see ourselves the way we are treated by those who abuse us, and then we find others who treat us the same way, and then treat others out of the lack of worth they have, and in turn others will be raised to think as poorly of themselves as they have been treated, no matter how able or wonderful they may be as people. It is melancholy to reflect upon this cycle as one sees it generation after generation after generation. How are such cycles to be broken? How are we to maintain our dignity in the face of abuse in such a way that it can be combined with the humility and graciousness to see even those who oppress us as human beings worthy of concern and respect, even if from as far away as possible? Such a task can only be accomplished with God’s help. It is only through the grace of God above that we can rise above the horrors of this life without an arrogant hostility against those who have attacked us that turns us into merely different forms of the same enemy ourselves. In seeking to avoid the poison of abuse, we must be cognizant of the difficulty in avoiding treating others as we have been treated as we treat others the way we want to be treated, even if few people return the favor back to us.
When one is faced with the troubles in this world, and with the immense suffering and futility that one finds among the wreckage of human sin and error, it is tempting to attempt to save other people even if we are painfully aware that we cannot save ourselves. Yet at the same time we are solemnly commanded to give as we are able. What, then, are we able to give? Often, what we can give is our time, our patience, our concern, and at least some assistance in material matters. Whether or how other people respond to who we are is generally not within our power to determine, although we ought to do everything that is within our power to communicate ourselves graciously and honestly so that we cause no unnecessary offense. We must also remember that for any number of reasons others may simply not understand what we are about, and may respond inappropriately to it. The same, of course, is true for us. The barriers to effective communication in the absence of patience and trust and a willingness to give and receive the benefit of the doubt are massive, as are the difficulties in overcoming such crippling deficits in our personal background. Given the amount of brokenness in this world, it is a matter of deep sorrow and anguish to increase that because of our own behavior while we walk this earth. May God be merciful to us and direct our steps according to His wisdom, and not according to our experience. For are we not His children, created in the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father? May it be easier for others to see.