Why do we, as humans, so often assume the worst of each other?
The election cycle is heating up, and this year’s candidates are giving us plenty to talk about! This week, Donald Trump said the Democratic primary was rigged. The “powers that be” rigged the election so that Bernie Sanders would lose and he predicted that the November election would also be rigged. There are Democrats who believe all Republicans are rich white people who could care less about the poor. There are Republicans who think all Democrats are socialists who hate rich people. Our country, recently, has certainly seen its fair share of assumptions when it comes to race. Someone recently referred to the Black Lives Matter movement is the black version of the KKK. Others have said publicly they believe all cops are racist. Some folks assume all Muslims are against Westerners, that they are inherently violent, that they are all in a war against America. There are some who believe all Evangelical Christians are right wing Republicans, who do not care one lick about social justice, who do not care one lick about the environment. Why do we, as human beings, so often assume the worst of each other? Have you ever wondered that?
Brené Brown might help us understand why. Brené Brown is a Professor of Social Work. She has written a few books, including three #1 New York Times Bestsellers. She speaks extensively on the issue of shame and vulnerability. I was first introduced to Brown’s work when she spoke at the Global Leadership Summit last year. Speaking to thousands in attendance and many millions around the world she told about a moment when she felt particularly vulnerable.
She and her family traveled to Lake Travis for a summer vacation. One morning, she and her husband decided to swim across the lake and back. Both had been competitive swimmers earlier in their lives. So, for you and me this sounds like torture! But for them, they were really looking forward to it. They started out and swam about half way across the lake. Brown said at that point, she was just overcome with the sheer majesty of that moment, the beautiful lake, the rising sun, there with the man she loves. So, she turned to him and said, “I feel so connected to you. I’m so glad we are doing this.” Her husband, Steve, turned back to her and said, “Yeah, waters good,” and he kept going.
She thought, “Maybe he didn’t hear me.” They swam a bit further and when they stopped again, they were face to face. This time she said, “Steve, I want you to know how close I feel to you. I’m really glad we are here together.” He said, “Yep, waters good,” and he kept swimming. Brown says at that moment, she was so angry and scared. They arrived back at the dock. She says, “What’s going on?” He says, “I don’t really want to do this with you right now.” And at that moment, she began to think, “This is where I am going to be when I find out we’re getting a divorce.” Her mind immediately began to draw conclusions. She began to form this story in her mind about what might be wrong, about how their marriage was falling apart. Come to find out, her husband had been having a panic attack. He thought he might drown in that lake and he physically could not respond to her in that moment. Nevertheless, she had worked up this entire story in her head about what was “really” wrong.
Why do we do that? Why do we so often assume the worst? Listen to Brené Brown explain why this happens to us.
Do you know why it kept coming up in the research? Because our brain is neurobiologically hard wired, in the instant something difficult happens—a crappy comment from a coworker, a terrible look from your kid's teacher, a conflict at work, a failure, a disappointment, a heartbreak—our brain is wired to make up a story about what's happening. Our brain recognizes the narrative pattern of story. It recognizes beginning, middle, end. And if we can give our brain a story in that second when something hard happens, it rewards us chemically. It thanks us. It says, "Oh, a little dopamine; here you go. You got it." Here's the problem about how the brain is wired: It rewards us whether the story is accurate or not.Anyone ever make up a story in your mind? I think we all do. I think we all have. But here is the problem: that is not the path God has called us to travel. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been exploring some sayings that we commonly attribute to the Bible. Sayings that, though they are repeated often, they aren’t really in the Bible at all. “God just wants you to be happy.” “Good is good enough.” Last week, Caleb talked about a very common one: “If you want to go to heaven, just do your best and let God do the rest!”
How many of you in here—and I really expect to see a show of hands, and I can out-wait you uncomfortably for long periods of time—how many of you in here have ever gotten in a conflict as a leader, and the minute that conflict is over you have made up an entire story about what happened? How many of you have ever done that? Show of hands? Right, we do that. And you know the stories we make up have good guys, bad guys, dangerous people, safe people. You know what they call in research a story that has limited data points that we fill in with our values and ideas? In research, that's the definition of a conspiracy. A conspiracy is limited data points filled in with values and ideals. So, we make up these stories. And how many of us work off these stories for hours, months? All of us. (Brené Brown, Global Leadership Summit 2015)
This week, I want to talk about an idea, not so much a single statement, that has become very prevalent in our world. Even among Christians. The single statement that gets closest to this idea is: “You can never be too careful.” We’ve heard that statement and the idea that comes with it so often, surely it must be in the Bible somewhere. But it’s not. Nevertheless, there are children of God who believe we must always be on our guard. We must always be in protect mode. We must always shield ourselves from the sinister plots of evil people around us because, “You can never be too careful.” There are some folks who believe everyone is out to get them and they always assume the people around them have hidden agendas or motives. They rarely take people at their word. I recently was sifting through some old church publications in my office. I found an old religious journal. This journal, right there on its cover, had its mission statement:
We aim to keep up the fight of faith; to continue to expose and mark false teachers; to unmask the unscriptural conduct of erring brethren and to refute any and all error.What a sad mission in life! Look, I’m not saying we should ignore false teachers, but to make that task the mission for your life’s work? Of all the things one could find in the Bible—“Love your neighbor,” “Serve the poor,” “Welcome the stranger,”—this editorial board chose: “Unmask erring brethren” as their life’s work. What a sad way to spend a life! We live in a world that is almost always suspicious. A world that almost always assumes the worst in people. During this election season, we hear it all the time from politicians and members of the media: “I know they said this, but what they really mean is . . .” I get so tired of that, but that is the way this world is. We assume people are lying, we assume people have hidden motives, we assume people are out to get us. But that is not how followers of Jesus should behave! That is not the kind of life God calls you to. The fact is: You can be too careful! And in being too careful, you can forget what it means to love. Listen to how Paul describes love in I Corinthians 13:
Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:4—7 CEB)I love the way The Message renders this last line of the paragraph:
[Love] Trusts God always,Love always looks for the best! That doesn’t mean you go through life with a naive grin on your face. That doesn’t mean you throw common sense out the window. But it does mean you give people the benefit of the doubt. It especially means you give the people you love the benefit of the doubt. That’s what love does.
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
(I Corinthians 13:7 The Message)
Let me ask you a question: How would your life be different if you assumed the best of people? If you assumed the best of your children, if you assumed the best of your spouse, if you assumed the best of your leaders? How much time and energy do you think we expend making up stories, or “conspiracies,” in our heads? You know, in my experience, those conspiracies that I create in my head, they cause me a lot of heartache! They cause me to go through life as a cynic instead of going through life with every intention of loving those around me as God loves them.
Here is a crazy thought, you can never say the preacher didn’t give you anything practical to do (and “next steps”). Here you go: Just pick one of the narratives you’ve created in your mind, I assume all of us have a few! Just pick one this week and make an effort to have that difficult and necessary conversation with the one you love. Explain to them what you are feeling, explain why, and then, just listen. Honesty and listening, both of these build trust! A relationship that is filled with mistrust, that is no relationship at all. And let me just be blunt, God has called His people to build strong, Spirit-filled, trusting relationships with each other. A fallen world is filled with mistrust and broken relationships. The church, the people of God, we are called to stand up again. We are called to help the world stand up again. That means, among other things, that we are called to model healthy, trusting relationships to those around us. Tough work, especially in a world like ours. But rewarding, life-giving work! Love always looks for the best! May we love like that this week!