Love the Person, Not Your Story of Them

St. Teresa of Calcutta once said “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

Throughout the Gospels, Christ warns us so much against judging others. This is partially a practical consideration, since none of us can see into another’s soul. A person’s behavior may be wrong, but I do not know how culpable they are for their actions. Perhaps a person has many sexual partners. This is clearly wrong. But what if they grew up in a family where no one ever explained to them why it was wrong. They may honestly have no idea that they are inviting great sin into their lives. In our modern culture, very often the values that are promoted in media are the opposite of the ones that Jesus

But there is another reason why we should not judge others: it makes it harder to love them.

Of course, there can be the condescending kind of “love” that comes from the self-righteous. We who are religious can often fall into this trap. We look on those who do not live the way Christ commanded and we pity them, but from a perspective where we are the enlightened ones above those dwelling in darkness. Of course we would never put it in such crass terms, but that thinking is at the root of this trap.

But real love doesn’t do that. Real love doesn’t judge a person. (Again, wrong actions should always be called out and corrected, but we should never do this in a way where we sit in judgment over another’s soul).

We are called to connect to the people God has placed in our lives. We are called to love them as they are.

One of the main problems occurs when we build narratives around people and we mistake our own narrative for the person.

Let’s say I’m walking down the hall and I trip. I look up and the person in front of me keeps walking as if nothing happened. If you’re like me, you start to think, “What is wrong with this person. They didn’t even think to look behind them and see if I was okay? Are they selfish that they don’t care?” And then I start building a story about this person in my head about their narcissistic personality and how oblivious they are to the needs of others. But then perhaps I catch up to them to see that they are crying because they’ve just received news that someone they love has just passed away. Coming into contact with the real person destroys the story I built in my own mind.

Maybe I’m strange, but I think we do this more often than we think. We assume motives and meanings behind the actions of the people we encounter and we begin to judge them based on those stories in our heads.

This is one of the things that leads to divisions in things like class and race. We build stories about people who are different from us and we judge them based on the stories in our heads. How often do stereotypes act as the filter through which we judge another person?
This happens a lot when we begin to lose contact with people. One of the reasons friendships rarely survive high school is because people slowly lose contact. Because of that, our stories in our heads of our high school friends begin to grow over the real person, like moss covering a statue. We then begin to mistake the stories we create for the actual person. I’ve seen this happen where people convince themselves that friends who are good and loyal are actually selfish and toxic. As time and distance increase the gap between them, the narrative they construct becomes more and more real.

This is especially true with the dead. In A Grief Observed, CS Lewis recounts this story: ““Today I had to meet a man I haven’t seen for ten years. And all that time I had thought I was remembering him well- how he looked and spoke and the sort of things he said. The first five minutes of the real man shattered the image completely. Not that he had changed. On the contrary. I kept on thinking, ‘Yes, of course, of course. I’d forgotten that he thought that- or disliked this, or knew so-and-so- or jerked his head back that way.’ I had known all these things once and I recognized them the moment I met them again. But they had all faded out of my mental picture of him, and when they were all replaced by his actual presence the total effect was quite astonishingly different from the image I had carried about with me for those ten years.”

Lewis was shocked by how much his own story about his friend had replaced the actual person. But fortunately, seeing him again could shake away his illusion. But Lewis had just lost his wife Joy (who he calls “H.” in his writings). And he writes: How can I hope that this will not happen to my memory of H.? That it is not happening already? Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes- like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night- little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes- ten seconds- of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”

With the dead, we don’t get those course corrections. Often we end up sanctifying our memories of those that have passed and remember them better than they were. Lewis worried that he was losing the reality of who his wife was and replacing her with his narrative. This is a problem, because he wants to love his wife, not his story of her.

Sadly, we can also do the opposite. We can demonize the dead in our minds. And they do not have the opportunity to break through to reality. If we judge them, we cannot get the correction we need from encountering them in the here and now.

We should not judge the people in our lives now. How much more should we not judge the dead. We walk on very dangerous ground when we do this.

The more we fall into judgment, the less we are able to love. And that is the real trap that Christ tries to save us from. It is a terrible thing to lose someone we love.

It is a far worse thing to lose the ability to love someone.

The fire of love often burns us, but the coldness of a loveless heart is terrifying to me. The more we judge others, the more that coldness douses the fire of that love. And the more we create stories in our heads about others, the more we judge them.

That is why we must constantly reach out in relationships.

Call that friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Write a letter to your brother. Get on a zoom meeting with your sister who lives out of state.

And pray for the dead. All Souls Day will be here soon. Our faith reminds us that death is not the end of our relationships. We must reach out and love the dead. If we do not, then we kill the love in our hearts and make it more likely that when this earthly life is done, we will go to the place where there is no love at all.

So remember to love the person and not your story of them.

Copyright 2020, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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