Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.
That way, you’re a mile away from them and you have their shoes.
That quote cracks me up, but I didn’t hear the Jack Handey version from SNL. Rather, it came from a friend who recounted hearing it on an episode of Car Talk. Either way, I love the humorous turn it takes.
The punchline lands well not just because it’s clever, but because there’s a dark place inside each of us that would rather get even than do the hard work of empathy. Instead of pressing towards understanding, many times we settle for pretend empathy or passive aggressive revenge disguised as empathy.
Handey’s advice is ingenious because it looks noble on the surface, keeping hidden the true motive of what appears to be a kind gesture.
The book of Proverbs, however, calls it foolish.
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18: 2
When we think of foolishness, most of us imagine the blathering blockhead called out in the second half of this verse. If we haven’t been that guy, we’ve surely been left speechless by the idiotic drivel of the neighborhood conspiracy theorist, the clueless co-worker, or the agenda-driven talking head on national news. We’ve had to “unfollow” a friend whose online rants regressed from annoying to psychotic. We’ve read with disbelief some of the deranged comments posted to online news articles or listened aghast as the genius in the hair salon bashed the faculty of the local high school. That’s one way to spot a fool.
But the first half of this verse tells of another way.
Just because you may not be driving everyone crazy with your wacky opinions, don’t think you’re immune to foolishness. While the second half of this Proverb deals with what a fool says, the first half exposes his inward posture. Solomon lays bare the indifferent mindset of a fool saying that a fool is one who takes no pleasure in understanding.
How are you doing with that?
Do you take pleasure in understanding? Is seeking first to understand (thanks Stephen Covey) part of your DNA? Are there times when you are more concerned with being right than getting it right, with being heard rather than listening?
Solomon says failing or refusing to understand is another indicator of a fool.
I don’t know about you, but with that, I’m busted.
If a fool finds no pleasure in understanding, I’ve been a foolish computer user, lawn mower operator, and kitchen appliance owner. I’ve experienced more frustration than pleasure when trying to understand those things.
Most of my foolishness, however, has been revealed through relationships. I’ve been a foolish friend, a foolish husband, a foolish coworker, and a foolish parent. Some of that folly has been expressed vocally, but more often than not, it’s been demonstrated in my unwillingness to understand a person, their predicament, or their point of view.
While I’m sure I’ve been both antagonistic and passive aggressive, neither of those are my go to responses. I usually settle for some of these inferior (foolish) substitutes. See if any of these sound familiar to you:
Sometimes I confuse knowing about with understanding. You may know what’s going on in someone’s life, you may see aspects of their dilemma they’ve missed, you may have even traveled down a similar road, but that doesn’t mean you understand. Knowing facts, having an outside perspective, or sharing a similar experience does not equal understanding. If you keep inserting yourself, your perspective, or your experience into their circumstance, you’re not understanding.
Sometimes I mistake labeling for understanding. Personality inventories, socioeconomic categories, generational generalizations (e.g. Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials) have been great tools to aid with understanding, but if we’re not careful we’ll use these to label rather than understand. When we stereotype or assign motive to an individual based on his or her affinity group, we’ve failed to do the work of understanding. If you find yourself defaulting to labels or stereotypes, you’re not understanding.
Sometimes I think figuring someone out is understanding. When we view someone as a problem to be solved rather than a person to be loved, learned from, or valued, we’ve crossed the line. “I’ve figured you out” is self-protective and denotes superiority. If your default reaction to a puzzling person to try and figure out what’s wrong with them, you may not be understanding.
Sometimes I equate tolerating with and understanding. Many of us politely disengage when faced with a person whose outlook or disposition differs from ours. We give a weak, corners up, no teeth, non eye squinting smile, but inwardly, we’re disengaged or even dismissive. If you feel morally superior because of the energy you’ve expended “putting up with” someone, you’re not understanding.
Sometimes I work to understand, but do so dutifully or reluctantly. I think this is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. We stumble over this Proverb and see that understanding is important and God honoring, so we do all we can to be obedient. But this, too, could be an indicator of foolishness. Solomon’s words highlight the difference between dutiful obedience and actually finding pleasure in understanding.
A year ago, this Proverb might have caused us to think again about our posture towards those who hold a position different from us on politics, education, or an appropriate age to have a cell phone, but today the tension is a hundred fold. It is far easier to delight in my opinions about political figures, historical monuments, police practices, and the coronavirus than it is to understand those whose opinions differ.
But Solomon gives no qualifier here. Nothing indicates that difficult issues exempt us from from the teachings of Scripture. Nor is this a one-time admonition. There are, in fact, several instances in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul encourages his readers to develop understanding with those with whom they disagree.
Take a few moments to read Romans 14: 1 – 19 and Titus 3: 3 – 11. I would then encourage you to revisit those passages later in the week to think further about their implications. In the meantime, here are some closing thoughts:
Sometimes understanding comes by remembering our priorities. In Romans 14, Paul urges Greek and Jewish Christians — who apparently disagreed on everything — to not quarrel over opinions, religious practices, or dietary concerns. They were seeing the world through their own limited perspective and gave it priority. When the gospel is of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3), other issues can be discussed with grace and understanding, but when my opinion is of first importance, I’m a fool.
Sometimes understanding comes when we remember our past. Can you remember your mindset before becoming a Christian? Do you remember how you viewed the world? Do you remember the things you were certain of that you now consider foolish? In Titus 3, Paul urges us to consider not only our cluelessness, hostility, and contentiousness, but also to be reminded of God’s mercy extended towards us in the midst of our foolishness.
Sometimes, understanding comes when we devote ourselves to prayer. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to obey His teaching. As disciples of Jesus, we are also called to follow His example. We often site examples of Jesus praying before a big decision, performing a miracle, or after a draining season, but we should also note that it was His custom to pray (Luke 22:39). As we follow His example of devoting ourselves to prayer, our love for God deepens, our faith in Him is strengthened, and our perspective changes.
May we, by God’s grace, be steadfast in our conviction while understanding of others’ perspective as we re-present Jesus to our community and the world.