By: Matt Gordon
Find what is lovely about a person and lead with that.
I can be pretty mean. William Faulkner built his literary empire, in part, on misfits. He was masterclass at taking wretched characters and highlighting their oddities. He highlights idiots and racists and backwoods morons with just enough realism and just a touch of humor. I think I have a little Faulkner in me, or rather, I Faulkner-ize the people around me. I’m a big game hunter on the prowl for deficiencies in intelligence, morality, physique.
It is such an easy disposition to slip into, and to quote John Lennon: “I’m not the only one.” We tend to know people around us by the worst in them. There is method to this—it gives leverage to the relationship: I know that misguided thing you did or that mistaken perspective you cling to. The negative knowledge of another gives you power over them, like finding a manila envelope full of compromising pictures, or, to modernize the reference, we collect timely screen captures of the worst moments of others.
And this ugly heart trend isn’t just limited to past misdeeds or online foibles, it becomes our rote operating system. If I walk into a room of strangers—waiting rooms are the best—it is tempting to sit quietly and judge the world around me. There is the person who talks too loud and uses bad grammar; there is the person who asked the dumb question at the front desk; there is the person who can’t control her kid; there is the person whose clothes don’t fit. And on and on it goes, a Rolodex of evidence as to how I am better, smarter, truer, wiser than everyone else on this planet.
It begins with strangers, but then it bleeds to other relationships too. This is why gossip is such a delicious dish many of us can’t help gluttonizing over. We get a confidant or two and give voice to the toxicity that has built in our hearts. We conceal it with humor; we cloak it with concern. But it is verbal violence against our fellow human—our friends and family included. And, ultimately, it is a weapon used against ourselves, as no good comes from it. Only the festering wounds of bitterness and loneliness.
Messing up in high school was helpful. My senior year I did something dumb and public. People turned on me. I was astounded to find that grown-ups—formerly supportive teachers and parents of friends—let their disdain for me be known with a certain haughtiness. It was a disarming season of life, but what was even more dizzying was going home from college or in my mid-twenties or even into my thirties. It was not uncommon to have that decade-old mistake—truly a harmless misstep of youth—be the defining quality of my being, the marker of my identity, the summarizing statement of my entire life. Many people wanted to know me for my blemish and nothing more.
It made me realize all the ways I am prone to “know” such people—the loser from middle school, the annoying woman who never stops talking, the coworker with bad hygiene, the . . . I could go on and on.
Or I could stop.
I could instead find a new rule to live by.
And it is simple: Find what is lovely about a person and lead with that.
This doesn’t mean I can’t dislike a person or that a person cannot be dumb or unwise or smelly or loud. People are all those things every day—at least I am. But this rule means I don’t have to define people by the very worst trait I can pick out about them. It means I don’t have to walk into a conference room with coworkers and try to find the ones I don’t like and chronicle a tidy list of reasons for this disinclination. I don’t have to go around building a case against my fellow human, using their own idiosyncrasies or downright flaws as firewood for the flame of hatred in my soul.
Instead I can challenge myself light a fire of a different kind.
In bygone days of the wild west, fires were beacons for the weary traveler to warily approach. There he’d meet the owner of the fire, and there by sacred flame they’d inch closer to heat, to light, and to one another. Meals were often had this way; stories were shared. At some point someone at these fires pulled out a harmonica or a fiddle, and music was made. It was the fire of community, and the way it is built in my own life is through acceptance, not creating a cache full of misfits to mock.
Every person is made in the image of God, and thus possesses dignity, value, worth. Beauty. When I write the descriptions of the people who populate my mind, my existence, what wording will I choose? What traits do I seek and sift out? What do I see?
The annoying coworker or The coworker with the warm laugh?
The know-it-all or The dogged pursuer of facts?
The screw up or The bold taker of risks?
I want to strive to know people by their beauty.
Find what is lovely about a person and lead with that.
(Quick Virus Application (QVA-19): We are socially distant from one another and as the old cliché goes: distance makes the heart grow fonder. With some of the time one may have back from the lack of activities to keep up with, perhaps make a list of what is beautiful about some of the people in your life? For me, I’m doing this with some of the people I work with. I look at my team and at our org chart, and I just pick a handful of people each day and consider what is lovely about them—the way a person encourages; the way another forgives easily; the way a guy I know adores nature or how another is visionary. Then, at some point, commend and encourage the person in their loveliness. It unleashes their beauty into the world, while fortifying your own habit toward goodwill.)