In reading a book for a blog tour in a couple of months or so, I was struck by a phenomenon that is worth discussing in some detail. The book discusses a case where the body of a dead child had been found in some dumpster among industrial waste, and immediately it was thought, and discussed in the media, that the child had been abandoned by a terrible mother. This was immensely hurtful to her for several reasons, not least of which that the reports were mistaken and that the truth was far more complex; the child had been taken to a funeral home by his impoverished mother, but they had botched it, and instead of the blame being placed on them, where it belonged, it was placed on a homeless woman in great distress who was in terrible grief at having lost her newborn son to SIDS and who did not have the means either to clear her name or to properly honor her dead child. Although I have never had any children, and cannot fully walk a mile in the mother’s shoes, her distress at being labeled because of a lack of understanding and compassion on the part of others is something I can definitely understand in my own ways.
We are used to questioning whether our shortcomings, and the shortcomings of others, are due to a failure of intellectual understanding or a failure of compassion, but in the vast majority of cases both are the case, for reasons that are not difficult to grasp. For one, when we deal with people we often do not have all the facts. To be sure, we do not often understand the full and complicated tangle of motivations and context that lead us to behave in certain ways at certain times for ourselves, and our knowledge is far more limited when it comes to other people. Even if, to some extent, our limitations as human beings make full understanding of other people impossible, we can do a lot better than we usually do, but that usually means that someone has to spend the time in digging up the facts, so that the human being we are dealing with can be seen, rather than the caricature that is provided from a superficial understanding of limited facts in the absence of context. Yet we do not want to take the time to understand others, largely because we do not care about them sufficiently to want to see them and deal with them as human beings. Our failures of understanding often spring from failures of heart, failures of empathy for those struggling human beings around us, failure to treat others as fully human and to see them as cardboard two-dimensional villains who commit all kinds of evil and lack compassion themselves and are therefore unworthy of our own.
This phenomenon, both of labeling others in very narrow and inaccurate ways, is strikingly universal. The broad scope of this problem can be glimpsed by the fact that it shows up in a book about a woman helping to honor the dead with headstones who adopts deceased and purportedly abandoned children after they have been given an autopsy by the coroner, which is grisly business and that it also shows up as the subject matter for one of Eminem’s most compelling songs “The Way I Am,” in which Eminem sarcastically sings about the way he is misinterpreted by the media. Eminem’s point is a sound one, because as human beings we crave simplicity and the sad reality is that many of the situations we deal with are deeply complex and tangled, and we lack either the interest or the understanding to wade through the complexities of sin and tragedy. Our lack of interest often extends to looking at ourselves, because the more we wrestle with the complexities of someone else, the more we recognize the tangles and complexities within ourselves, and if we desire to see ourselves as simple and straightforward, we cannot concede or explore the complexities in others because it will speak as to our own similarities in that regard. As is the case often in life, what we are willing to do with regards to others often reflects strongly on ourselves.
Even when it comes to matters of grand historical scope, the issue of wrestling with the complexity of how others are is a matter of grave difficulty and seriousness. On the one hand, when it comes to dealing with people both individually and collectively we can recognize that much of the darkness within us that we struggle against is a part of legacies of bad examples and abuse and mistreatment . We are responsible for our actions, but we are not at fault for the context in which we act, our genetic and environmental heritage that predisposes us to certain behaviors and that makes certain roads easy to travel, however dark their destination. Yet affixing the blame for this is a deeply difficult problem, as there is not usually one person to blame. If, to take an example not entirely at random, we are called into account for some sort of unpleasant personal proclivity or undesirable behavior, it is a natural instinct for us to point the finger at others who have wronged us in the past. And those people, if they were able to defend themselves, would do the same. This tendency, it should be noted, goes back all the way to the Garden of Eden. Nearly everyone, if blame is affixed on them, can point back to someone else in the past who bears at least some responsibility for the mess that their lives or that this world is in, even if they bear some blame themselves for their failure to respond in an optimal fashion as well, something that they would be keen not to admit to preserve their own personal dignity. And so it goes, and so it goes.
The reverse is also true. Just as our evil is often far more complicated than others want to say that it is, so true our good is not as good as others would like as well. If we are seeking models of past historical decency, we very quickly will run into the problem that the goodness we seek is mixed with all kinds of badness, and that those who see themselves as good often ignore within themselves a great deal of evil. One of my favorite examples to address this problem is the antebellum slaveowners, although there are plenty of other examples that others could choose. These slaveowners considered themselves to be upstanding Christians, and were extremely sensitive to the criticisms that other people had about their peculiar institution . Yet these people were righteous in their own eyes, as most people are, and found much to criticize in the behavior of those who took them to task, and their criticisms, however self-serving, were not entirely off the mark either, even if their self-justification strikes us, rightly so, as extremely hypocritical. Both they and their opponents were real human beings, with unequal and varying mixtures of good and evil, their good leading them to rail at the evil in others, and perhaps privately in themselves, and their evil exposing their pride and dignity to assaults and ridicules from their contemporaries and from later critics.
Although we may find the concern of others with their dignity a bit ridiculous, the origin of that sense of dignity is tied up with the reasons why we should spend the time to seek to understand and show compassion on others, even if they may appear to be ridiculous to us. That reason is that we are created in the image and likeness of God, however much that image and that likeness have been darkened or corrupted by sinful lives in a fallen world. If our dignity appears laughable to others, and theirs to us, it is because we feel that respecting the dignity of others depends on what they have done, while our dignity deserves to be respected because of who we are. So long as that remains the case there will be little in our lives to give us peace when it comes to judging others, or dealing with the mistaken judgments of others who do not bother either to gather the facts or to look at those facts with any sense of compassion. And while we cannot do anything about the hearts and minds of other people, we are responsible for our own, and have much work to do there.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: