That fine line between folly and forgiveness

Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017 9:24 AM

Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

This quote has recently resurfaced in social media in response to the overt racism in Charlottesville last month. When (mostly) white males marched the city streets chanting, “You will not replace us,” the fear and hate they manifested toward people of color seems worthy of our attention and reflection.

When (mostly) white males marched the city streets chanting, “You will not replace us,” the fear and hate they manifested toward people of color did not appear out of nowhere. Hence, Angelou’s admonition.

On the surface, believing who someone is by virtue of his or her actions seems reasonable. “Actions speak louder than words” after all. But is Angelou’s advice saying, as it seems to, that we should judge someone at first blush based solely on their actions? No second chances? No extenuating circumstances? No room for mistakes or immaturity or even forgiveness? And no room on our part for just flat out poor people-reading skills or projecting our own stuff onto others?

Coming from a woman who was raped at an early age as Angelou was, such advice is understandable. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Still ...

In my mind, all this raises several questions. Do our actions necessarily and always reveal who we are? And, even if they do, might there ever be a reason not to cast that in stone? Might there be a reason to leave room for learning/evolution/transformation?

In theory, we Christian types give a high priority to compassion and forgiveness, not unlike other religions. We value hope. We encourage and support and even expect growth in our fellow human beings. Are we simply naïve when we give people the benefit of the doubt? At what point do we become enablers?

You may be thinking I’m going to answer those questions and wind this article up in a tight little bow of certainty. Life is not that tidy. It is far more complex and altogether messy. I remember well an ethics professor bursting my idealistic bubble when he said that in this world there is no absolute good. He pointed out that sometimes what is “best” is just “the lesser of ills.”

We humans are a mishmash. None of us is pure anything. Not pure this. Not pure that. And at least among those folks I know, not many of us live consistently out of our better selves. When I fudge on the truth; when I am selfish with my time or my resources; when I lose my temper and am unkind, I really hope those who are around me for the first time will not assume that what they are seeing is the fullness of who I am. And I really hope they will be in touch with their own flawed humanity enough to cut me some slack and not judge me out of some mistaken sense of their own righteousness.

That said, it seems there should be some lines it would be right to draw. But where do we draw them? When confronted with hateful, hurtful or dismissive words, what would it mean if we chose to believe that they represent only some of who a person is? When on the receiving end of hateful, hurtful or dismissive actions, what would it mean if we chose to believe that those actions do not reflect the totality of a person’s being? Is holding up a mirror in which someone might see his/her better self, nothing more than giving them license to continue their bad behavior?

In a fractured and sometimes dangerous world, on what do we draw as we formulate our responses to questions like these? One strike, and you are out? Forgive seventy times seven? Believing who a person is based on what they show us is one thing. How we respond has ramifications that can extend far beyond our imagining, not only out into the world, but also into our deepest ourselves.

Quips and quotes, bumper sticker slogans, and Facebook memes may catch our attention. They may even express what is true. When people’s dignity and even their lives are at stake, however, taking time to reflect on their deeper implications seems something about which we would do well to invest some time.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or