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“He has potential,” I heard a teacher say. She was referring to a student with great talent but little motivation. She just knew he could perform better if he would only apply himself. But she also knew that potential was no guarantee of results. She’d seen many students with huge potential that was never realized.
I thought about how often we encounter people who just don’t seem to be trying. Or caring. Or even aware of how grand the possibilities might be. Great talent seems heaped upon some people, but then they don’t work to develop it.
Married couples often complain about this to counselors. They know their spouse has wonderful potential, but oh, how far below the mark that person actually is! Sometimes people marry someone not because they’re in love with the individual before them, but with the lofty possibilities they imagine. Maybe they’ve even read that person’s Patriarchal Blessing, and are banking on all of those prospects coming to fruition.
Even historical figures let us down. From presidents to war heroes, from the leaders of social causes to the leaders of our congregations, we see the missed opportunity for true greatness.
I was chatting with someone recently about political and civil rights leaders whose imperfections were causing some to want to tear down statues and murals. These famous, quotable folks had fallen from their pedestals of perfection, and fallen badly.
“Do you know the percentage of people who fail to live up to the best that they know?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “It’s one hundred,” I said. “It’s all of us.”
Not one person actually attains perfection or reaches the finest standards that they believe in. Only Jesus Christ did that. The rest of us trip and fall somehow, usually every day. By the time a week rolls around, we desperately need the cleansing Sacrament to help us repent, renew, and restore our hope in the future.
Sure, we try. We pick ourselves up, vow to do better, and even manage to improve from time to time. But it’s a journey with millions of snags and setbacks. We hope to make incremental progress, to grow in the right ways, to please our Father in Heaven. But we’re mortal. We make mistakes. We need the Savior’s atoning grace and his constant help.
And, of course, we hope those around us will be forgiving. We hope they’ll give us the benefit of the doubt, believe in our good intentions and honorable hearts. Or, at least we hope they’ll have poor memories!
But then we turn right around and hold others to impossible standards. We expect absolute perfection of church leaders, government officials, athletes, teachers, relatives, spouses—the list goes on.
Sometimes the urge to judge others comes from the hope that by seeing how sinful someone else is, our own flaws will look smaller by comparison. Sometimes we enjoy seeing giants fall—someone who seems exceptionally rich or famous makes us feel life isn’t fair, and when they “get what’s coming to them” it feels like justice. Often a person whose mistakes are revealed becomes proof that virtue is just impossible, and now we are justified in giving up. Other times we want someone else to be wrong to prove we were right. These are all childish, selfish, unloving ways to view our brothers and sisters. These attitudes lead to laziness, disobedience, pride, resentment, hostility, victimhood, and failure. Satan loves to fan these flames.
I’m not saying we can always ignore serious problems. We can exercise our right to vote corrupt politicians out of office, we can fire employees who steal from us, we can call the police when someone assaults us, and so on. To be certain, there are instances when we must rightly judge and take action.
But when it comes to the kind of pointing and faultfinding that makes us revel in another’s weakness, or become unfairly critical, we need to pause and evaluate whether our condemnation is justified, or is motivated by self-interest. So what can we do when we see others failing to achieve their potential? Here are five ideas:
First, turn it around. When we find flaws in those around us, we would do well to remember the beam and the mote, and ask ourselves how harshly we’d want to be judged if we were the ones under scrutiny. Often we harbor a double standard—a demanding one for others, and a forgiving one for ourselves.
Second, sustain. When we raise our hands to sustain someone in a new calling, we aren’t just voting. We aren’t saying, “Yeah, that person would be okay in that job.” We are pledging our support. We are saying, “I will come to your events, I will help you succeed in any way I can.” So when someone in your personal circle trips and falls, you be the one to rush in and offer a hand. Lift. Forgive. Help. Sustain.
Third, keep your cool. Instead of becoming angry when someone lets you down, ask yourself how often you have fallen below the potential God sees in you—and did he lash out? God loves sinners, and we are all sinners. Try to summon that kind of love.
Fourth, assume the best of others. It’s what you want people to do for you when you have an off day. We all have those moments. Maybe what you’re observing is one of those.
Fifth, resign as judge. Simply offer acceptance. This doesn’t mean you condone wrongdoing—it means you let the person know you care about their soul. They are safe in your presence. You find worth in them. Leave the judging to God. Only he can see into a person’s heart. You are simply to be that hug, those hands, that smile, those soft words. Wouldn’t you want that when it seems the whole world has turned against you? Or that life’s challenges are an avalanche? Or that you’ve made a horrible mistake? We all need a safe harbor in the storm. This means spouses stop trying to change the other person, even if they believe it would improve them. To the target of such efforts, it feels like rejection, like they’re not good enough. So stop sending that message, and just celebrate the good.
All of us have unrealized potential. As children of God there is grandness and greatness in our DNA. But it will be a very long time before we attain pure perfection, and as we journey through this life with others, let’s remember we’re fellow travelers, all beset with weaknesses and the need for love and understanding. By coming together in a spirit of helpfulness we will achieve much more than if we stand there with a clipboard, ticking off boxes of approved actions, and shaking our heads as those around us fall short in certain areas.
As a matter of fact, when we can manage to refrain from hasty judgments of others, we actually come just that much closer to being like our Savior. We manifest the charity and love he wants us to develop. And isn’t improving ourselves work enough?
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.