“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
When I meet with a group of teens at the church where I work, I typically ask everyone to say their name and what we’ve grown to refer to as “Happy/Crappy’s.” Not only does sharing their triumphs and challenges help me get to know the kids better, it bonds them with each other. Recently, one young many sighed when it was his turn to share and lamented that he had yet to begin a large English project due at the end of the week. I asked what the project was about and he said, “A book that the class read.” I asked how he liked the book and he sighed again, saying that he hadn’t read it. Finally, I asked what the book was, and this time, with true despair, he admitted that he didn’t know; he hadn’t opened the Amazon package yet.
The group of students — including the boy — all laughed and groaned together. To at least some extent, we’ve all been there. I felt bad for the young man, but I also knew that he’d pull it together and complete the project. Despite some irresponsibility in this instance, I knew that he was a good kid and I had a lot of affection for him in the moment that he openly and with good nature shared his troubles with the group.
What strikes me, as I look back on the conversation, was how differently I felt about this young man than I knew I would have felt about him fifteen years ago, if I were his peer sitting beside him in that room. As I am sure many of my high school classmates would confirm, I was a bit of a goody two shoes throughout my teenage years, never missing an assignment and working ahead on projects. I would have been both baffled by and judgmental of this young man’s work style, and at the same time, I would have also been intimidated by him because he’s the popular, athletic type, which I most certainly was not.
As an adult, I feel no judgement for or insecurity around this teen, and instead, I see him through an almost rosy, negativity-cancelling lens. I can see that he’s a nice guy who maybe isn’t cut out for a high school English classroom and hasn’t yet conquered the impulse to procrastinate. I can see that beneath his confident, slightly macho exterior, he’s a little unsure of himself and looking for affirmation as much as the rest of us. I can see the good qualities that he brings to our group, ones that I know I would have failed to notice as a peer: his laid-back nature and his good sense of humor infuse the room with a buoyant energy.
Of course, I’m in a privileged position that I get to work with teens at their best. I’m not the English teacher who will be grading this assignment, or the parent worrying about their child’s developing work ethic. But I think that considering how my current self looks at someone vs. how my past self might have offers a useful reminder: we ought to cast our gaze upon the other with a wider angle than we might ordinarily be accustomed to doing.
We tend to observe and understand the people whom we encounter through the limited perspective that we have in our given time and place, but if you find that your current perspective is making someone look bad, try considering how you’ll feel about them in ten years. It’s sort of like imagining our enemies as babies, a tip I once heard for inspiring compassion. At it’s heart, this is an exercise in seeing people the way that I imagine God sees us: with love and fondness, no matter what we’ve done or what we’ve failed to do. We may not be able to love our enemies unconditionally the way that God does, but if we can look at the people we meet with a little more tenderness and a little less judgment, we’ll be better for it, and so will the world.
Reflect: Who in your life could you try observing with a wider lens? What does it feel like to imagine them as a young child? How do you think God feels towards this person?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.