Within the span of seven short days, I met two people who formed two completely divergent opinions of me. I could do nothing to change their rock-solid first impressions. That week of mistaken judgments happened thirty-five years ago, but it feels like last week.
When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I barely had enough money for Raman Noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel (sort of like modern day WWOOFING). For a bit of manual labor, they provided me with food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)
The weekend before I boarded my plane, I heard my first talk ever on being a man (though I completely missed its message). On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends who were doing mission work. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and tried (unsuccessfully) to play the man.
During a two hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)
A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; she felt I was being manipulative. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.
To her, I was a jerk, and everything I did or said, or failed to do or say, reinforced her judgment.
She wasn’t the only one to misjudge me
The morning after that infamous dinner party, I flew to Tel Aviv. On the plane, I read this verse: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Pr. 17:28). I felt convicted and decided to speak less and listen more.
The following day I began my first job on the communal farm, but it began at 4:00 a.m. and I didn’t have an alarm clock. My roommate promised to wake me, but he forgot.
I desperately wanted to impress my new boss, Amnon, but the proverb—When he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent—was still fresh. I decided not to blame my roommate. Instead I simply apologized to Amnon without excuse.
The next day, my roommate forgot again, but the verse still haunted me, so I apologized again.
That evening I had a few hard words with my roommate (I didn’t keep completely silent), and he swore he would remember. And then he forgot. To Amnon, I apologized a third, agonizing time. I desperately wanted him to know my circumstances, but I decided to keep silent.
On the fourth night, I “borrowed” my roommate’s alarm. I was the first to arrive for work.
Later that day, my roommate secretly spoke with Amnon. He confessed that it was his own negligence that caused me to be late three days in a row.
A new opinion
That evening, Amnon searched me out in the cafeteria, he told me of my roommate’s confession, and he said, “Sam, the volunteers I work with are shallow, defensive, and overflowing with creative justifications. You are my first volunteer ever to apologize without excuse. I will call you ‘Emet’ [which means True, Genuine, Pure, or Unmixed].”
From that day forward, he called me nothing else. When he introduced me to others, he’d say, “I’d like you to meet my friend, ‘Emet.’” When he read out the work-duty roll call, he shouted, “Emet.” When we spoke in private, he’d say, “Emet, I’d like to tell you a secret.”
And I could do no wrong. If I was late, he assumed I had good reason; if I offered an idea, he thought me a genius; if I suggested a stupid plan, he applauded my initiative.
The tiniest of influences
Let’s be honest. I was neither quite as pure as Amnon imagined nor quite as shallow as my friend’s wife judged. If I hadn’t miss-applied that manliness teaching—or if I recently hadn’t been convicted by that one proverb—I would have swaggered less before the woman, and I probably would have blamed my roommate for letting me sleep in.
Every person we meet is on a path from point A to point Z. We see them in isolated moments (sometimes between C and D, and sometime between Q and R), and we form an opinion. We haven’t seen their entire journey. They seem more conceited than we are, but their humility may have grown leaps and bounds while our humility has stagnated or declined.
Every human life is on a trajectory. Occasionally those trajectories intersect—sometimes over dinner, perhaps for a summer job, and maybe in a marriage—but we can never know all their life influences. We only see the snapshot called today, it’s a single frame in the movie of their life. We don’t see the events that shaped this moment.
But I wonder
I have been disturbed for years by the woman who made a snap judgment of me. It felt unfair. Why couldn’t she see me as Amnon did? Today I realized that it is I who had misjudged her.
I don’t know what shaped her life. Maybe she was bullied by a schoolyard tyrant or an abusive father. Maybe I was a faint echo of those past torments. I don’t know. And that’s the point. I just don’t know. She may be handling her past with far greater grace that I handle mine.
This morning I read Oswald Chambers, “God never gives us discernment so that we may criticize, but only that we may intercede [for them].”I realized that my denigration of her criticism reveals my own inner fraud. Maybe her judgment is fairer than Amnon’s.
This morning I prayed—for the first time in my life—for that woman whose life I never knew.