Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away from them and you have their shoes. Jack Handey
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.
This approach is ingenious to us because it looks noble, and it has a hint of humor, yet the bad guy gets it in the end.
But the book of Proverbs 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 blithering idiot painted 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 talk show blowhard. We’ve had to “unfollow” a friend whose Facebook rants regressed from annoying to psychotic. We’ve read with disbelief some of the deranged comments posted to online news articles. We know this fool well.
But what about the first half of this verse?
Just because you may not be driving everyone crazy with your wacky opinions, don’t think you’re immune from 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. 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.
Ok, so 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 have zero desire to understand most things mechanical.
Most of my foolishness, however, has been revealed through relationships. I’ve been a foolish friend, a foolish husband, 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 used the passive aggressive revenge mentioned above, that’s not normally my MO. 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 or your perspective into their circumstance, you’re not understanding.
Sometimes I mistake labeling for understanding. Personality inventories, socioeconomic categories, generational generalizations (see millennial) 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, i.e. women driver, typical liberal, yankee, etc., 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 I’ve figured you out.” is self-protective and keeps us from engaging. If you’re first reaction is to problem solve, 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. We get riled up at the word “tolerance”, but are unaware of or unmoved by the foolishness and arrogance of tolerating. 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 — somewhat reluctantly. I think this is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. We know that understanding is important. We know that it is 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.
What would it look like for you to find pleasure in understanding? I love the internal charge I get when someone laughs at a comment I make. Sometimes I feel good when I make a drop the mic, end of discussion point. We’re wired to derive pleasure from saying something funny, getting our point across, overcoming objectives, ending discussions, but part of the re-wiring of sanctification is God working in us to delight in doing his will. Doing the right thing is good. Delighting in doing the right thing is godly.