Loveless Generalizations

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You are bad at most things. We all are. What is something you are absolutely terrible at? Or better yet, what is something terrible that you cannot stop doing? How do you respond to yourself in your failure? It probably depends on your frame of mind. Some days you effusively coddle yourself with emotions, while other days you castigate yourself with proverbial floggings.

I was talking with two of my nieces and my nephew the other day. My nephew Cash is the youngest. His sisters were perpetually lamenting what a bad child he was. His oldest sister Halina was especially frustrated. Some children are probably bad most of the time, but Cash is not one of them. I explained to his sister that he is not a bad child, but simply a child who sometimes behaves badly.

I asked her what was something that she once did badly but now did well. “Swimming,” she answered. I asked her how she became a better swimmer. “My daddy taught me.” And so I asked her if her daddy ever told her what a bad swimmer she was. She explained that he certainly had not but had actually encouraged her along the way, praising her for small improvements. Then I asked her if others referred to her as “Bad Swimmer Halina” back when she did not swim well. Of course they did not. That one particular void of success had not defined her.

So why is it that you expect your brother to behave better when you tell him what a bad child he is all the time?” She began to see my point as well as her young mind could. I was trying to help her to see something that many of us have so much trouble seeing even into adulthood. That is, the human brain likes to generalize because it helps to reconcile our feelings.

It would take a great deal of deep consideration for my niece to understand the many variables leading to her brother’s misbehavior. Among simple human badness would be boredom and a desire for attention, both stemming from his role as a youngest sibling with no brothers. Furthermore, in her momentary frustrations with her little brother, she becomes emotionally too blind to even assert what are his copious redeeming qualities.

She begins with a failure to comprehend her brother’s context and adds to that an emotional filter that prevents her from seeing her brother as anything but the troublemaker he is to her in that moment (or comparable prior moments). In that moment there is that which feels true to her, and her brain, autonomously as it were, creates a typecast generalization of her brother that reconciles that particular reality.

I think we can forgive my niece for not fully having learned this lesson. But what is the excuse for the rest of us?

Love is a discipline that demands immense courage. Love demands courage because it is itself a quest for understanding the nature of its object. My niece absolutely loves to swim, but a swimming pool is deadly if one is not studious regarding its dangers. To master swimming demanded of her a particular humility which undergirded her process of acquiring patient understanding.

She had to not only discover the nature of water, but of gravity, of her own buoyancy, muscular strength, and propensity for experiencing fatigue. In other words, a love of swimming demanded a knowledge of complex relationships amongst body, mind, and matter. It was not enough to keep herself afloat with mere volition. And if such a willpower is possible, it would no doubt demand much more discipline and understanding than doggy paddles or breaststrokes.

This is true of anything we love. Do you love to draw, or sing, or dance, or lift weights, or spin records? What are those things unto which you have subjected yourself? When the endeavor proved itself difficult, was it the discipline that needed adjusting or was it you and your relationship to the discipline?

This is of course true of all relationships. This is why I am nauseated when people seek to humanize their animals. There is something fundamentally grotesque about seeing dogs, genetic wolves, treated like human children. Any good dog trainer will essentially encourage to lead your dog  with the assertive calmness of an alpha wolf. In other words, a good dog trainer will encourage you to patiently pursue an understanding of your pet’s hidden and rudimentary nature.

“A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

Proverbs 12:10 KJV

Furthermore, our love for other human beings demands this steady and humble discipline- this courageous quest to pursue understanding for the benefit of the objects of our love and affection. But this discipline needs not to be one saved for only the people of which we are most fond. This way of thinking ought to become an all-encompassing discipline of the spirit and the mind.

How many of the world’s ailments would be pacified if we sought better understanding of ourselves, of our loved ones, and of all those around us? We are so very quick to dismiss others with blanket generalizations (labeling, name-calling, and so on). We so often do this even to bolster our own conflated sense of self-aggrandizement and piety. But even the densest of us have regard for the plot in which the villain is a multi-dimensional figure. Such stories resonate with us because they are true. Everyone is multi-dimensional. Some are just much more difficult to see beneath the surface.

If we operate with this assumption, that every person originates from a context which is chock-full of complex variables, then we will be much quicker in seeking to understand them. This will create opportunities in which to influence others to become better, but moreover it will drive us to transcending levels of human thought and existence. Love, like all disciplines, shapes us. Like a spindle shapes wood on a lathe.

“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

1 John 4:12-13 NASB