Adventures in Athens – How We Treat Others

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Our Persian Sister

She moved out just over one year ago. Things had been tense for several weeks, especially since her sister had visited. We didn’t know why, but I could hear the tension in Jane’s (not her real name) voice, and see her almost continually locked door in our basement. We tried to understand why she seemed to grow more distant, but the closer we tried to get, the farther she moved away.

Jane was a young Christian Persian woman who I had met on a mission trip to Central Asia in 2011.  She had come to New York City in September 2013, lived in rooms rented from families, and ate out. She linked up with the Persian community and enjoyed the night life of the Big Apple. Perhaps to save money, Jane moved to Virginia to live with us in December 2014.

Sometimes Jane felt homesick. One Sunday afternoon she and I attended a Persian church together. I was taking a class in Islam at the time, so I asked her a lot of questions. Our family attended a Nowruz exhibit at the Smithsonian, and we all enjoyed the Persian dinners that she occasionally made.

Jane took pains to be fashionable. She used things to make her eyes look larger and to plump her lips, which puzzled our adolescent sons. She wore lots of makeup, tight clothes, and short dresses. She bleached her naturally dark hair. Jane ate very little, at least at home, and did not exercise. Jane had no car, and our since house was about three miles from the Metro station, she got rides or took a taxi to the Metro when she wanted to go out.

We never charged Jane rent, or even assigned her chores. We forbade male guests in her room, and asked her to eat with us when she was home at dinnertime. We required her to attend church and expected her to join evening prayers with the family. I told her frequently that as a medical worker and polyglot, she would be a fantastic interpreter on future missions trips that I hoped to do in Central Asia.

The final break happened in early December. I was speaking at a college life group affiliated with our church. My two oldest children were going, and I invited Jane. She agreed to come. The topic involved missions and evangelism, and I asked Jane if she thought that she would always be more emotionally tied to the country of her birth, or to America, her adopted land. The question provoked an angry response, and no apology helped. At the life group, Jane and my children were in the other room when I started the lesson. No one, not even our host, invited them in. My children sat in another room and listened, but Jane went into the yard and talked to friends on her phone. She was livid at the slight.

The next morning I flew to Southern Seminary for classes, and in the afternoon Jane exploded at my wife and children. That night she found an apartment with three Indian girls, and within a week she was gone. My wife Nancy and I loaded her remaining possessions into our van, drove to her new apartment, and moved her in. For this young Persian woman that I had treated like my own daughter for almost a year, I could only muster a tense handshake goodbye.

We saw Jane at church occasionally, but over time she appeared less and less. Nancy brought her mail and a Christmas present to the services but it was weeks before she picked them up. Jane soon moved to a different place with different roommates, and didn’t let us know her address. We heard that she got her work visa and found a job at a convenience store. Later she found employment as an assistant in a dental office, a field in which she is pursuing a career.

It is hard to know what happened. Jane once told me that it is harder to be a Christian in America than in Central Asia. Authorities in that part of the world persecute Christians, but American culture tempts them away from God. Jane wanted the life of a young, single, Persian-American woman, while we offered the life of a family led by middle aged, married, white American parents.

Occasionally someone in my family texts Jane and gets a brief update. Nancy and I feel sad whenever we think of her. We have moved to a different state, and there is a good chance that we will never see her again. Our family prays for Jane regularly. We still care for her, and take comfort in the knowledge that she is, and always was, in the hands of God. Why am I posting this? In the hopes that our experience will resonant with others who may have endured a similar situation.