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The following comes from Wallace Goddard’s new series, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. To see the previous article in the series, click here.
President Monson told a profound story: A young couple, Lisa and John, moved into a new neighborhood. One morning while they were eating breakfast, Lisa looked out the window and watched her next-door neighbor hanging out her wash.
“That laundry’s not clean!” Lisa exclaimed. “Our neighbor doesn’t know how to get clothes clean!”
John looked on but remained silent.
Every time her neighbor would hang her wash to dry, Lisa would make the same comments.
A few weeks later Lisa was surprised to glance out her window and see a nice, clean wash hanging in her neighbor’s yard. She said to her husband, “Look, John—she’s finally learned how to wash correctly! I wonder how she did it.”
John replied, “Well, dear, I have the answer for you. You’ll be interested to know that I got up early this morning and washed our windows!”
Are we looking through a window which needs cleaning? Are we making judgments when we don’t have all the facts? What do we see when we look at others?
Said the Savior, “Judge not.” He continued, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Or, to paraphrase, why beholdest thou what you think is dirty laundry at your neighbor’s house but considerest not the soiled window in your own house? (Thomas S. Monson, Charity Never Faileth, October 2010 General Conference)
In psychology we talk about benign attributions. In daily life we call it giving people the benefit of the doubt.
One of the most important lessons I have learned is that people do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. When their actions don’t make sense to me, it is because I don’t understand them.
Of course it is entirely possible that their actions are misguided. We all make mistakes. But if my compassion is working, I will try to understand why that person did what he did rather than judge him to be foolish, selfish, or wicked.
We can all think of examples of judging someone unkindly only to discover that the person was carrying terrible burdens or struggling with unknown challenges.
I love a story by Jeff Fullmer:
As my family sat a few rows behind the deacons one sacrament meeting, all I could think about before the opening hymn was that one of the deacons had failed to properly tie his long tie and correctly tuck in his wrinkled shirt. I thought someone should have helped him out. After all, when passing the sacrament, deacons should be an example of the Savior in action and dress.
The meeting proceeded, and I forgot about him. After the deacons had passed the sacrament, the talks began. The second speaker was the young man’s mother. She spoke of her conversion, of her trials growing up, and of her struggles as a single mother. It was a wonderful talk that left her in tears. She took her seat on the stand and continued to cry as the ward choir gathered to sing.
Just then her son, with his crooked tie and untucked shirt, stood and walked to the stand. He hugged his mother and crouched beside her to comfort her. Tears came to my eyes as the scene played out before me; I was touched beyond words. But then realization dawned, and I hung my head. Sitting in my crisp double-breasted suit, with my perfectly tied tie and polished black shoes, I realized I had truly missed something in preparing for the sacrament.
The young man and his mother came down from the stand and sat together as the choir began to sing. I sat there, unable to listen to the music because the sermon taught by this deacon flooded my heart with a message of Christlike charity.
He had performed his act with tenderness and care. There was not the slightest sign of embarrassment on his young face—only pure love. The subsequent messages over the pulpit that day were good, but I will always remember the sermon behind the pulpit. (Sermon behind the Pulpit, Ensign, September 2013, p. 76)
We humans are quite determined to make sense of the things we see. So, when we see an incomplete story (and every story we see is incomplete!), we fill in the details from our imaginations. The person with the scowl must be a grump. The child who takes the forbidden cookie must be a thief. The spouse who fails to prioritize my needs is inconsiderate. This tendency to judge causes untold misery and pain.
Instead we can fill in the details of other people’s stories with compassion and kindness. When we show such attributional kindness, we get a truer sense of other people. Robert Louis Stevenson described himself as “one who meant well, tried a little, failed much” (Ch. XII, A Christmas Sermon). That describes all of us pretty well.
A cynic might protest: “But most people really are selfish, narrow, and coarse.” Yes. We all are burdened by our fallenness. But giving the benefit of the doubt allows us to see what heaven sees. God calls that kind of seeing “pure knowledge.” He recommends that we see each other with “kindness, and pure knowledge.” When we do, it “shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121:42).
As long as we have dirty windows, we will see dirty laundry. When we wash our perceptual windows with the pure love of Christ, we see good, earnest people trying hard.
Unfortunately our judgments of people become quite automatic. We must invite God to change our hearts. In the words of Joni Hilton:
“Next time you’re in line at the market, or pumping gas, or in the workplace, notice the people around you and the quick conclusions you’re tempted to draw. Catch yourself judging unfairly and rewind the tape. Instead, see this person as a child of God who is loved and hoped for. Know that a Patriarchal Blessing awaits this person. Realize they cheered in the Pre-mortal World when they heard the Plan of Happiness. Ask a silent prayer to see if your path was meant to cross theirs today, to help them and bring them the truth.”
(Joni Hilton, Meridian Magazine, Are You More Judgmental than You Think?)
To learn more about our flawed perceptual processes, read Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.
To apply these principles to your own life, read our University of Arkansas program, Getting Our Hearts Right: Three Keys to Better Relationships at https://www.uaex.edu/health-living/personal-family-well-being/personal/hearts_right.pdf