Dehumanizing the Old Church Lady

I had an interesting conversation the other day over dinner; Courtney and I were talking with some friends about life at our common place of employment, how customers often confuse one barista for another. At some point someone said, "It's sort of like how all Asians look the same." Because they do right?

To a white person in the Midwest picturing a youtube video with Japanese contestants traversing a greased down and padded gauntlet, or some other ridiculous item, yes they look exactly alike. But my cousin who is Asian, looks drastically different from the Asian girl sipping her latte sitting across the room from me.

The funny thing is that my friend Yulei, (an exchange student who spent two years with my parents) once told me, "All white people, they look same to me." This isn't a localized phenomena.

We are adept at reducing individuals to their genus.

And we do the same with the poor, alcoholics, and grumpy old ladies. We think we get them, that we know why they do what they do.

I once heard a little old church lady, lets call her Susie, tell her life story. Were I to tell her story myself, based on my first impression, it would have included four children, a picket fence, some salvation experience at three, James Dobson childhood, and now retired. And I would have been terribly wrong. Susie was from a rather poor home. Her mother often told them that they were not as good as people who had money. She was abused verbally, physically, even sexually. To escape the nightmare of her past she eventually moved to the city and let herself go in any way she could find.  Even after she started following Jesus and married a patient and understanding man, she was still at times abusive to her own children, only recently beginning to uncover the immense hurt she had long buried. She had started to make amends, but it was a long and painful process barely underway. Her life was a story of pain and already-but-not-yet redemption.

When I heard that woman speak, I thought of a hundred people I had written off as nothing more than bitter, angry, lazy, or abusive –people I only knew enough about to categorize. They all looked the same to me. But every one has a story, their own debilitations that just happen to be a bit more visible or obnoxious than my own.

A friend once said, "People do things for a reason." It's elementary, but as shows like Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader have often reiterated  elementary items are often the first to leave us. That simple item has transformed the way I see difficult people, myself included. When someone is angry or bitter I am less apt to trivialize those feelings. Though they may seem overblown in isolated context, no emotion is ever isolated. Every event, big or small feeds life or death into the present. I easily recognize this in my own life, so why is it so difficult to recognize it in others?

Jesus didn't dehumanize, just the opposite; He breathed humanity into people pushed to the edge. When he spoke to the Samaritan woman He was, according to the cultural standard, speaking to a spiritual bastard of the Jewish system of worship, and even worse, He was a rabbi speaking to a woman (One notable rabbi at the time had his wife follow four feet behind him with head bowed). But Jesus didn't reduce her, He saw her as an individual that He cared for enough to know deeply.

Part of that care was retelling her story. She had a history with men, married five times, currently living with the sixth guy. As Rachel Evans recently pointed out in her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, we quickly impose promiscuity on this woman, but the Bible makes no reference to motivation. In a culture that treated women as property, a single woman was vulnerable, without job options. If you think it was hard enough for a single mother to get a decent job in the twenties, try first century Israel.  It may have been that this woman's marital exploits were more about survival than about sex. Again, we are quick to  reduce.

I am grateful that Jesus isn't interested in oversimplification, that He knows my story, that He understands my frustrations, my cynicism, my hang-ups. He knows and he is patient with my dysfunction. The least I can do in return is try to take the time to understand others, to know their story, to fight my desire to reduce them to an oversimplification, easily explained, easily dismissed.

May He guide you through the wilderness May He protect you through the storm May He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you