One of the most profound qualities of the late Abbot Kyogen Carlson, a Zen Buddhist Priest, was how slow he was to size people up. He did not presume to know people’s motives, or grasp everything about those with whom he interacted. Rather, he simply addressed what he experienced in terms of behaviors. It reminded me of James 1:19: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (ESV). Could not James have added, “Be slow to size people up”?
On one occasion, I witnessed someone attacking Kyogen verbally during his lecture on Buddhism to a group of visitors to his temple. The person presumed to know a great deal about Kyogen and his life, including his motives, though they had only just met. In fact, the person knew virtually nothing about Kyogen. After a tirade, Kyogen interjected firmly, “Stop it. You don’t know me.” That was it. Nothing more was said. There were no more accusations, and Kyogen went on with his lecture. After the group of visitors left the temple, I stayed behind to apologize to Kyogen for the intrusion. After all, I was the one who had coordinated the gathering (I also spoke with the individual in question after the event, and had also interjected during the encounter). I was struck by Kyogen’s brief recounting of the incident. He did not presume to know why the person had cornered and challenged him so severely. He did not judge the individual. Just as the visitor in question did not know him, he did not know the visitor. He did not know the motives, and so did not try to size the person up. He simply addressed the inappropriate behavior that involved making false claims about him in the moment and left it there. On another occasion, Kyogen took issue with someone on his end of the political spectrum who went after former President George W. Bush—out of the blue—during an interfaith forum. Perhaps Kyogen lost points with the individual in question, and with those on the political left, when he said that each of us had better deal with the baggage in our own hearts and lives before attacking the character of others. Certainly, political and ethical views mattered to him, but he reasoned that we need to address our own problems first rather than gives ourselves a free pass on the way to lobbying culture war grenades at others.
Of course, motives matter a great deal, but knowing what is in people’s hearts is beyond my pay grade. God searches people’s hearts (2 Chronicles 16:9). John’s Gospel tells us that the Lord Jesus knew what was in people’s hearts and so did not entrust himself to them (John 2:24). But like the Apostle Paul, I don’t even know my own heart’s depths, so how can I make judgments on people’s motives? Paul penned the following words, as recorded in 1 Corinthians 4:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God (2 Corinthians 4:1-5; ESV).
We will all have to give an account to God, who knows our hearts. Like the Psalmist of old, then, we should ask God to search our hearts and try our anxious thoughts, leading us into the way of righteousness: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24; ESV)
While all cats are not gray, and our views, votes, decisions, practices and associations do matter now and in eternity, nonetheless, isolated incidents do not sum us up. We are complex narratives and stories, who are in flux. We need to give people space and ask them to explain their reasons for why they do what they do and think the way they think, while offering our own rationales for our own decision-making processes. It would be foolish to entrust ourselves to people we have only just met, but it is equally foolish to pre-judge people with little information to go on, and discard them based on this or that association, affiliation, isolated past or present action, or claim. We need to become quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry, and slow to size people up in our day of confirmation bias, immediate reaction, and instant gratification.