How we treat others matters far more, to the individual and to everyone around, than we can possibly imagine.
My daughter Anna is getting married in June, so she and I traveled to Greece this past week to adventure together one more time. It has been a marvelous week; we have enjoyed the place and enjoyed each other. I will treasure these few days forever, and I hope that she will do the same. With all of the fun that we had, God used our experiences to build our character and our faith as individuals and as the Body of Christ.
Yesterday Anna and I traveled to Corinth to see where Paul walked and worked. The ruins of the ancient city featured a temple of Apollo, a basilica of Julian, shops, houses, and the Bema where the famous apostle was tried before Gaius. After almost two hours of exploring the ruins, we agreed to finish individually and then meet at the temple to conclude our visit. I stopped by the Pirean fountain and explored the historic road entering the city. Anna finished first and went to the temple. I tried to get to the temple faster by leaving the site through the exit and reentering the main entrance.
I pulled my ticket out of my pocket and showed it as I walked by the Greek woman in the ticket booth. She said “that is the wrong ticket”, and I realized that she was right. I emptied my badly overstuffed pockets – camera lens, wallet, keys, cell phone, reading glasses, sunglasses – and found nothing. The line of people behind me grew. An older, rotund Greek worker fell into the bushes next to me. I normally would have helped him, but I kept looking for my ticket instead. I told the Greek woman “I came through here two hours ago” and she smirked “I don’t remember you.” Under my breath I replied “even if you did, you wouldn’t”. I considered paying another four euros to go in, but the snarky looking face in the booth dissuaded me.
Thinking that Anna must have my ticket, I called her twice, but she did not answer. While I was calling a third time, Anna walked up and snapped “I have your ticket, why did you leave?” Then Anna turned to the Greek ticket lady and said “I have his ticket.” The lady smiled triumphantly, as if this stupid, middle aged father had just been saved from his incompetence by his clever and beautiful daughter. My anger flashed, I reloaded my pockets, and walked away.
Anna followed. “What is wrong with you?” “nothing.” I replied, in my typical overcontrolled voice. We walked in silence to the temple. Anna said, “I’m sorry that I snapped at you”. “It is ok” I replied, but my voice did not change. I was not yet in control of my emotions, and it was better to say little. I snapped a couple of photographs and walked to the museum. It was after 1400, and we were both hungry. Anna was already in the museum. I texted her “Remember, I love you”. By the time we finished the museum, 45 minutes later, I had my emotions under control. I told her that it takes me a while to rein my feelings in, even with her mother. Then I told her my side of the story.
Like most events, this one got me to thinking, in this case about how we treat others. Rumor has it that when Donald Trump was on The Apprentice, his staff told the film crews, actors, reality show guests, and others to treat him with the utmost respect. In so doing, viewers and other outsiders would be inclined to treat him with respect as well.
Lessons from how we treat strangers
Most people have someone that they treat well; otherwise they would be utterly alone. How a person acts with strangers, how they treat a new acquaintance, is revealing. If how we treat strangers can be reduced to a continuum, it might include: Treating Poorly — Ignoring — Treating moderately — Treating Well. I am not including physical harm in this scale. Most people would prefer to be ignored than to be physically harmed, but this is not always true. Many people, in my experience predominately women, stay in abusive relationships because they prefer to be hurt than to be alone. To ignore someone is to essentially deny their existence, or at least deny that they are worthy of your attention, however fleeting. To treat someone poorly is to mock them or berate them. To treat someone moderately is to display conventional niceties, and to treat some well is to show kindness over and above the prevailing cultural norm.
If this continuum represents how people treat strangers, then a bell curve may represent how a population of people is likely to treat others whom they have just met. In such a curve, the majority of people treat strangers moderately or ignore them entirely. The advent of smart phones and other electronic devices seems to have made it easier and more socially acceptable to ignore others completely.
Imagine a group of workers at a party for a very large office, where few people know each other. The workers are Mike, Donna, Robert, Julie, Hernan, Hans, Hermione, and Hannah. A small percentage (the left side of the bell curve) of people will strangers poorly simply because it is their character to do so. If Mike habitually is rude to strangers, and if Donna is a stranger to him, he will likely treat her with contempt. Likewise, a small percentage (the right side of the bell curve) will treat others, including new people, well because it is in their character to do so. If Robert has developed real kindness in his nature, he will be kind to Julie, whether he knows her or not. Hernan, Hans, and Hermione might be indifferent to Hannah because they are indifferent people.
Notice however, that others are affected by how we treat someone. Mike may find Donna more appealing, or smart, or worthy of respect, if Robert does. Using the bell curve illustration, Hans is likely to behave better towards Hannah if he sees Robert’s kindness towards Hannah. What is more amazing is that kindness begets kindness, and unkindness begets unkindness, regardless of where it is directed. Mike may not only treat Donna better if he sees Robert doing so, but he may treat Donna better if he sees Robert being kind to Julie. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. Hernan may be crueler to Hannah if he watches Mike treat Hannah badly, or even if he sees Mike treat Donna with disrespect. People in the middle of the bell curve – most likely to treat others moderately or with indifference – are the most likely to be swayed one way or the other.
Lessons from how we treat those close to us
What is true for strangers is even truer for our family and friends. The Greek ticket lady viewed Anna and me differently by how we treated each other. If Anna saw me as a good father and noble man, the Greek ticket lady would be more likely to think the same. If Anna saw me as an annoying parent who was barely competent, the Greek ticket lady would probably think likewise. Since Anna is in my family, and knows me well, her influence on how others see me is powerful. They assume that her judgment is right.
This is truest of all for husbands and wives. I have heard many couples berate each other in the clinic and in counseling sessions. Doing so not only hurts their spouse, but makes it harder for others (like doctors, counselors, and pastors) to have a clear picture of the situation.
Aside from a few English words, gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice, I have no way of knowing what the Greek ticket lady in the booth was thinking. She may have been a wonderful human being, acting as kindly as she could and wondering why I seemed irked. But I do know, and did know, how I felt – devalued, misunderstood, and annoyed. I replied crossly at first, but with the discipline of years following Christ, put a lid on my emotion and fled the situation. While my temper cooled, I resolved to respond not in accordance with my hurt, but in accordance with the Spirit that indwells me.
Movie stars and Presidents have people to tell others how to treat them, whether those others listen or not, but the rest of us don’t. We can influence rather than control how others treat us and those around us, but have complete control over how we conduct ourselves. As hard as it may seem, Christians must honor the Spirit of God within us and seize that control. Emotions are wonderful, even God has them, but we must be lord over our feelings even as Jesus Christ is Lord over us.