I consider myself a good communicator. Words are my thing. I write hundreds of thousands of words a year, and I say quite a few of them out loud too. In fact you may have trouble shutting me up. Most of the time, people understand what I am trying to say. In fact, many people actually think I am eloquent at least some of the time. They not only understand the facts I am trying to convey, but the emotions behind them.
There are a few “mystery” people in my life, however, that I don’t communicate well with, no matter how hard I try. For years, I thought that I somehow was choosing my words poorly, but now I think it’s deeper than that. It’s like we know all the same words, but for them, those words mean different things when I say them. Somehow, when I say something to these “mystery” people, something happens to the words between my mouth and their ears, and they receive a completely different meaning.
When I say (to anyone), “Would you like a cup of tea?” I mean what I say. I am offering you a hot beverage made by pouring boiling water over some tea leaves. Furthermore, I am offering you this particular beverage because I love tea and I love to share it with others. I have no hidden agenda.
However, if I were to ask this question of one of my “mystery” people, I would get various reactions, none of which makes sense to me:
“What makes you think I want tea? Do I look needy to you? You can keep your stupid tea to yourself.”
“What’s the catch? Does this mean I owe you?”
“Are you mocking me? Are you somehow making fun of me because you know how to make tea and I don’t?”
“You think you’re so high and mighty with your fancy teapots and little spoons. I suppose coffee just isn’t good enough for someone like you.”
“Well, I guess tea is better than nothing. You probably never invite anyone over for an actual meal.”
“You can’t force me to drink tea. It’s just not my thing.”
“It’s just like you to offer me tea when you know I don’t like it.”
“You’re just offering me tea because you feel obligated. You think it’s your duty. Tea made with a sense of duty tastes bitter.”
“Do you think a little cup of tea is going to somehow make up for everything else you’ve done? You really think I’m that naïve and stupid?”
“It must be nice to sit around drinking tea all day. Some of us have to actually get stuff done.”
All of these responses leave me stunned and incredulous. How did offering someone a cup of tea turn into an insult? (Please note–the tea invitation is just a hypothetical example. My real-life experiences have been over things just as innocuous, however.)
Recently, I have been given a tiny glimpse of insight into what must be going on here with this handful of people who misunderstand, misinterpret, and misjudge literally everything I say to them. They don’t just dislike me. They don’t just find me irritating or annoying.
They truly believe that I am a bad and contemptible person.
Of course, they are right. I am a bad person. I am a sinner; saved by grace, yes, but still a sinner. And because I am a sinner, I have to believe that at some point in the past, I said or did something to each of these people to convince them that I am irretrievably loathsome. In each case, it was unintentional and in fact I am unlikely to be able to guess what my offense was. If I offended them on purpose, I feel quite sure I’d remember it! Unfortunately, these particular people whom I’ve offended are the kind of people with whom you only have one chance. Like Mr. Darcy, they say, “My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.”
This, I think, is the key to why they consistently misunderstand me. If you think I’m an evil person, not just sometimes but all the time, then you are going to make certain assumptions about everything I say and do. If you believe I’m truly despicable, all the time, then you are going to assume every word I say has some sort of evil intent behind it. Because you believe I’m a contemptible beast, you can never believe that I would be kind or generous to anyone–least of all you. So whatever I say to you, you will receive it as an offense, because you know how bad I am and you can’t believe that someone as bad as me could ever say or do a single good thing. Your perception will twist even a sincere compliment from me into some sort of savage insult.
If I am aware of my offence, apologizing will do no good either. When I discover that I have offended one of these people, of course the first thing I do is express my sincere sorrow and distress at having offended them. However, since they believe I am evil, they cannot accept my apology because they do not believe I mean it. They assume I am apologizing because of some ulterior motive that will end up being offensive to them, just like everything else I say and do.
I can’t tell you how discouraging this is for me. I can’t fix it. I don’t know how to fight it. I cannot win. Experience tells me that even years of kindness and friendly overtures will do nothing to change the opinion of someone who has already decided I am a wretched and reprehensible beast. Their good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.
Some of you are thinking, well, if those people have such a low opinion of you they shouldn’t be in your life. You’re better off without them. Of course there are some truly toxic people that we need to walk away from. However, I think we all know that we don’t necessarily get to choose who is and isn’t a part of our lives, and in each of these cases, I truly love and care about the other person despite their obvious revulsion toward me.
So why am I going on about this to you, my unsuspecting readers? I have been mulling this phenomenon over for a long time now (decades), and what I find myself wondering is this: Have I been guilty of misjudging others as some have misjudged me? Is there someone in my life whom I believe is irredeemably bad? Do I judge that person’s speech and behavior by a completely different standard because I assume they are bad, and everything a bad person says and does must be bad?
I hope not. I’ve been wracking my poor middle-aged brain in an effort to discover if I have been guilty of this type of behavior. Sure, there are people who rub me the wrong way and people who just really annoy me sometimes, but I hope that I am willing to give others a second chance even if they’ve done something really hurtful. I’m not talking about people who hurt me on purpose, or people who realized they hurt me and were sorry for it. I’m talking about people who may have hurt me without realizing it, and who will never realize it.
Forgiveness is a challenge at times, I know. It’s like we get some kind of internal payoff for hanging on to the hurt and pain, and we don’t want to let it go. Several times I’ve heard someone say that forgiveness means giving up your right to hurt the other person back. As I’ve pondered this idea, though, I don’t think it goes far enough. Based on my understanding of the Bible’s teachings, I would have to say that true forgiveness means that you choose not to retaliate and to wipe the slate clean, obviously–but it also means that you leave yourself open and vulnerable to being hurt again by that same person in that same way, and to still not hold it against them. That takes the kind of courage I often lack.
When I find myself faced with someone who has hurt me in the past, I hope I can leave that hurt behind me and take their words at face value. If they offer me a cup of tea, I hope I can gratefully accept it.