I wrote the following last summer when I worked with a groundskeeping crew of guys at my college. Enjoy.
People are made up of so many facets. I have this rather childish habit of judging a book by its cover — or perhaps even more hastily than seeing the cover. Sometimes I judge a book by what shelf it happens to be sitting on. However, in my current line of work I have been given the opportunity to interact with several different people that I never would have had (or taken) the opportunity to do otherwise. These interactions, which have (for the most part) taken the form of long conversations, have given me quite a glimpse into other worldviews and ways of thinking. They have also shed a significant light on how much I rely on my own preconceptions and judgements of people to shape any behavior I display towards them. I have discovered that I am not only a racist but a bigot; not only am I distrusting (usually undeservedly so) but prideful as well.
One of my fellow grounds crew losers, a young man who I had immediately written off as an obnoxious ex-football player who probably wouldn’t graduate when I first met him two days prior, stood a few feet from me, his neglected garden hoe serving as a leaning stick as we spoke passionately about numerable subjects. In the midst of this conversation, I posed one of my favorite questions:
“So what do you want to accomplish with your life?”
He responded by describing his desire to return to his home city and be a teacher. The reason he planned to graduate with a degree in elementary education, he explained, was to be able to serve as a role model to kids in St. Louis who never had someone to act as their father figure. He lamented the shortage of “real, good men” and had decided years ago to help remedy that by becoming one himself.
To say I would never have expected to hear any such talk come out of this boy’s mouth is an understatement of significant proportion. Had I ever considered what I thought his answer might be to that question before our enlightening conversation, it might have been any number of things — but certainly not one that exemplified a deep care for healing the youth of his home city. Of all the interesting things I learned about both him and myself that day we spent weeding the baseball field, the most significant was the extreme case of preconceived notions I have developed in myself. This tendency to judge people cropped up again and again for each member of the crew. Time and again, I unearthed gems within those that I had originally cast off as less-than-influential members of society. I discussed philosophies of worship and Christ’s church in America with a weed smoker, and discovered that we share a passionate love of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes.” I found that the quiet, lofty philosophy major has quite an ear for rhythm and once played a music gig in St. Louis after recording some of his original music and posting it on myspace. I mused over what the past must hold for the boy within a man’s body who, rather than risk being hurt again, simply shuts everything out. And I caught a glimpse of the grown man inside a boy who spends most of his time strutting around like a dirt-smudged daydreamer and yipping at the heels of passersby for attention.
To describe a person, an identity, and individual, with a label is a sore paraphrase. A person isn’t a druggie, or a librarian, or a homosexual, or a black man, or a teenager or an inmate or a Christian. A person is a librarian who aspired to be a restaurant-owner in her youth but ran aground in her college years and never returned to repair her ship. A person is a druggie who adopted a vegan lifestyle because of his love for animals and who struggles with the nature of homosexuality not because he feels same-sex attraction himself but because his brother donned that lifestyle out of rebellion against his parents four years ago. A person is a Christian by title and desire, but rarely by outward appearances, who wonders what God thinks of her and who spends every day of her life watching for some way to find out for sure. A person is a black man who loves gardening more than anything and spends his long hours as an engineer contemplating a move from the city to somewhere in Arkansas, but too afraid of the consequences could be for himself and his mother and brother-in-law who live with him now.
I don’t know why I ever thought I could figure out a person in just a glance, an observation, a bit of hearsay, or a brief exchange of words. What I am quickly learning is that I can’t. Not by a long shot. And now that I’ve finally admitted that in my head, I look forward to the day when that truth will finally sink in completely and I will stop making judgements right off the bat, and simply learn to listen, question, and enjoy the conversation without my preconceived notions tagging along for the ride.