by Chris Canniff
We are always told how important first impressions are, especially when going for a job interview or going on a first date. Although our good Lord said, “Judge not, that you not be judged,” many people, nevertheless, will make their final judgment about others based solely on their first impression of them. But, oh how wrong we often can be when we do this!
I have an unusually good memory when it comes to knowing other people. Even if I meet someone just one time, I often remember their face and their name long after they have forgotten mine, which can make for some awkward encounters around campus when I presume someone remembers me but they actually don’t. And so, since I am capable of remembering my first interactions with someone whom I ultimately form no relationship, just imagine how much more distinctly I remember my first encounters with those who are my friends. I formed an opinion of them in almost an instant, as most of us do, but I surely have been wrong on a number of occasions.
I remember meeting my best friend. It was freshman year of high school, and we were in the same Latin class. I wasn’t wholly wrong about what I thought of him at first, but I was wrong in some ways. I also remember meeting my two closest friends here at BC. One I met in my very first class of college, and as with my friend from high school, I now know that I was right in some respects and wrong in others. The other I met in my dorm. She says now that she doesn’t remember meeting me, but I certainly remember that encounter. The conversation we had was comical but ultimately not reflective of the totality of who she is.
In each of these instances, I saw bits and pieces of who these people are, but by no means did I fully see who they are. You can’t truly know a person by talking to them for just a few minutes. It is only through the building of a relationship that you get to know them in all their uniqueness and complexity. What a beautiful thing this is!
And I know all that, but I still sometimes make the mistake of rushing to judgment, and there have been times where I have been very, very wrong.
A year ago at this time, I was meeting lots of new people in my classes as often happens with the beginning of a new semester. I had a theology class that met once a week, and I already knew a handful of students in it, mostly fellow theology majors. However, in walked one girl whom I did not know. My first thoughts: she was pretty with her long, straight, blonde hair; she was preppy with her Longchamp handbag and her Tory Burch shoes; she was petite with her Chobani that she ate during our break halfway through the two-and-a-half hour class; she was your “typical BC girl” –– or so I thought.
In the past year, I have had the opportunity to get to know her, and I must admit that I feel quite guilty for having been so shallow as to have assumed based on meaningless externals that she was just some generic, vapid person rather than the unique and interesting and unfailingly kind girl whom I now know. Even these laudatory adjectives are inadequate, domesticating and limiting the radical goodness she possesses, a goodness that can only be known by truly knowing her; here, language fails. This regret of mine further extends to all those whom I don’t know, whom I may have classified in the same manner and according to the same criteria as I did with this one particular girl. As Jesus said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
What this has taught me above all else is that there are no generic people; there are no “typical BC girls” (or guys). Other people are not merely characters in the story of our life. They are so much more than that quiet kid in our English class or that obnoxious person whom we always see making a commotion at the dining hall on a Friday night. We even have this myopic perspective with people whom we know well, such as our family members. They are so much more than our sibling or our parent. Each one has a story –– a place they came from and a place they hope to go, their own triumphs and their own personal struggles, people who love them and people whom they love.
This wrongful presumption can only be overcome by forming real relationships with others rather than maintaining our distance and clinging to our preconceptions and nicely defined categories. Aloof and judgmental, we are blinded to the flaws that we ourselves possess and to the great graces that may be operative in the lives of others. Near and loving, we can begin to see other people for who they are in themselves, their weaknesses and their strengths. Then, we are even able to acknowledge the inherent goodness that is within those whom time and circumstances do not permit us to get to know closely. Together, we can begin to help one another become “everlasting splendors” as C.S. Lewis says in “The Weight of Glory.”
But first, we must have this kind of close relationship with God, and only then will we be better able to truly love others, that is, to recognize their otherness and to actively will their good. God is a person; He is Jesus Christ. We build our relationship with Him through prayer, through scripture, and principally through the Eucharist. It is in the light of that relationship that we should form all of our other relationships with those around us. Then, when it comes time for God to make His final judgment on us, it will not be based on some inadequate first impression. He will not be able to say to us “I never knew you” as He says to some in Matthew 7. For He will indeed know us by the love we have shared with Him and that love of His which we have shared with others.