When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)
The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.
During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)
A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.
To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.
She Wasn’t the Only One To Misjudge Me
After the dinner party, on the plane to Tel Aviv, I read this verse: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Pr. 17:28). I felt convicted and decided to speak less and listen more.
The following day I began my first job on the communal farm, but it began at 4:00 a.m. and I didn’t have an alarm clock. My roommate promised to wake me, but he forgot.
I desperately wanted to impress my new boss Amnon, but the proverb—When he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent—was still fresh. I decided not to blame my roommate. Instead I apologized without excuse.
The next day, my roommate forgot again, but the verse still haunted me, so I apologized again.
That evening I had a few hard words with my roommate (I didn’t keep completely silent), and he swore he would remember. And then he forgot. To Amnon, I apologized a third, agonizing time. I desperately wanted him to know my circumstances, but I kept my lips closed.
On the fourth night, I “borrowed” my roommate’s alarm. I was the first to arrive for work. Later that day, my roommate secretly spoke with Amnon. He confessed that it was his own negligence that caused me to be late three days in a row.
A New Opinion
Amnon later searched me out and told me of my roommate’s confession. He said, “Sam, the volunteers I work with are shallow, defensive, and overflowing with creative justifications. You are my first volunteer ever to apologize without excuse. I will call you ‘Emet’ [which means true, genuine, or pure].” From that day forward, he called me nothing else.
And he thought I could do no wrong. If I was late, he assumed I had good reason; if I offered an idea, he thought me a genius; if I suggested a stupid plan, he applauded my initiative.
The Tiniest of Influences
Let’s be honest. I wasn’t as pure as Amnon imagined or as shallow as my friend’s wife judged.
Every person we meet is on a journey, a path from A to Z. We see them in isolated moments (sometimes between C and D, and sometime between Q and R), and we form an opinion. But we haven’t seen the tiny actions that affect their entire journey.
Every human life is on a trajectory. Occasionally those trajectories intersect—sometimes over dinner, perhaps for a summer job—but we can never know all their life-influences. We only see the snapshot called today, a single frame in the movie of their life. We don’t see the events that shaped this moment.
A New Self-opinion
For years that women’s snap judgment of me felt unfair. Why couldn’t she see me as Amnon did? Today I realized that it is I who had misjudged her.
I don’t know what shaped her life. Maybe she was bullied by a schoolyard tyrant or an abusive father. Maybe I was a faint echo of those past torments. I don’t know. And that’s the point. She may be handling her past with greater grace that I handle mine.
My denigration of her criticism reveals my own inner fraud. Maybe her judgment is fairer than Amnon’s. After all, Jesus didn’t die for me because of my “emet” (purity); the true lamb of Israel died for that pig in London.
A spiritual man doesn’t swagger or spit. He simply admits he’s been a jerk.