Two weeks ago I talked about gratitude and how to get more of it into our lives. Along the way I mentioned the theologian Robert C. Roberts who has written extensively about Christian virtues over the years. A key for Roberts is what he calls proper construals of various situations. It turns out that so much of what is involved in our letting Christian virtues like the Fruit of the Spirit (patience, kindness, etc) shine through in our lives ties in with how we choose to see the world around us.
Neal Plantinga frequently uses this analogy: suppose you are in the supermarket checkout lane. The woman in front of you has a fair amount of groceries but that’s OK. However when it comes time to pay, suddenly everything slows down to an apparent snail’s pace. She produces from her purse not one but two, three, four, and finally five different checkbooks, writing checks to the clerk in varying amounts. It seems like it’s taking forever and you cannot understand what is going on. Your impatience begins to roil within you. How rude! Does this woman think the people behind her in line have all day!!??
But then suppose after you eventually check out yourself, you go into the parking lot and you notice this woman with her grocery-laden shopping cart making her way to a van with a number of senior citizens in it. She hands each person a checkbook and then a bag of groceries. And then you realize the truth: this woman was serving these folks by buying their food for them in that they were perhaps too frail to do it themselves. In retrospect your construal of the situation was wrong. Your impatience was unwarranted. You feel bad.
Suppose, though, that you learn something from this experience such that the next time you are in a slow-moving checkout lane because some person in front of you seems to be utilizing multiple payment methods, you construe the possible reasons why more charitably. You try to think the best of this person. Maybe he has to use food stamps for some items, a WIC card for other items, cash only for still others. Perhaps this is someone just trying to provide food for hungry kids from a compromised income situation. If you can look at the situation through these eyes, you have a much better chance at being kind, patient, and so on.
So much of how we behave hangs on how we construe something. Is the driver in front of you particularly pokey? Well, you can lay on the horn, swerve around them to pass them, make rude hand gestures. But what if you suspect that the vehicle’s driver is someone’s grandma? What if you imagine it could be YOUR grandma? You just don’t make rude hand gestures at grandma so throttle back, be patient and kind, and if you really are in a hurry, then go around the other car when it is safe and convenient and keep in check any actions that would make the driver of that car feel diminished. He or she may be a lovely person undeserving of your bile.
In some ways this is all pretty obvious stuff. But I sometimes wonder if the era in which we are living is making this harder to do than we realize. Our construals of many things are getting molded by social media, by the angry exchanges we absorb night after night on various cable news shows, by the opinions of co-workers or friends. At present, is our wider society helping us form charitable construals of situations, politics, the work place, our college and university campuses or working against that in pernicious ways?
The gospels routinely portray Jesus as incredibly compassionate. But so very often the prelude to some outpouring of Jesus’ compassion is the phrase “And he lifted up his eyes and . . .” And what? Well, he saw crowds of people sometimes. The disciples saw them as one more thing to do, as a nuisance, as needy people who needed to get sent away so Jesus and the disciples could have some much-needed downtime. But not Jesus. He construed those people as sheep without a shepherd, as lovely but needy folks he wanted to help. And then he did.
There’s a lesson there.