This is the time of year when people will make resoultions for the next year, taking about as much time to make them as they will to break them. I am in this boat. I resolve ever year not to bite my nails. Since I resolve that every year I am sure you then know that each year I fail. I admit that my fingers are ungly (ungodly ugly).
But there is one resolution that I established way back that I will am planning on building on this coming year: to undergeneralize people. Let me explain.
Someone close to me, we'll call her Betty, was explaining how she was shopping for the ever-important ingredients for what would become all the delicious Christmas grub at Publix, where shopping is apparently a pleasure. However, when she was getting ready to check out her pleasure turned to frustration. You see, she was strolling down the front aisle gearing up to check-out when a lady approached her head on. The horrible dilemma of who would get out of who's way ensued. Neither was willing to budge at first, so the person dear to me decided to move herself and her hefty cart from her left-side (the other lady's right) of the aisle to her right side, letting the other woman pass. Apparently the other woman didn't mention any words of gratitude so the person close to me, assuming the woman had "forgotten," said "you're welcome" to her. This woman, who, I am told, looked wealthy and had a child with her, responded snidely by saying, "I didn't need to say thank you; I was on the right side." Each woman went their separate ways and if the other woman is anything like the one so special to me, she was talking to all her friends about that ridiculous event that destroyed her Christmas spirit.
I know this because Betty went on to overgeneralize about this woman. She began to talk about this rich woman who felt like she owned the world because she's rich and can do whatever she wants just felt like she couldn't get out of her way for the "little person." Betty continued by saying how this rich woman was setting a poor example for the child with her who was probably going to grow up just like her. Betty's issue wasn't with the woman specifically, but with the rich woman who she overgeneralized, applying certain assumptions to her based on possible past experiences or constant exposure to ridiculous "reality" TV shows that highlight entitled celebrities and their tirades on five-star hotel management for not having the bathtub filled with Dom Pérignon heated to a steamy 102 degrees when they arrived.
Now don't get me wrong; I think overgeneralizing is okay in certain instances. I learned in a college intro psych class that humans develop schemas that categorize individuals into larger groups in order to keep their brains from overworking. This is the basis of our stereotyping. Let's face it, stereotyping just makes life easier, and in many instances they can be true. Paul does this very thing in his letter to Titus when talking about the people of Crete. He writes "One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true." (Tit. 1:12-13). From this he goes on to command Titus to "rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith" (v. 13). Stereotyping, or overgeneralizing, is easier and often helpful.
But it can also be harmful if we rest on it for all our interactions. One of the things we learned in my Gospels class this semester was the discipleship of the "little people" in the Gospel of Mark. These "little people" were those who were outside of the group of 12 disciples who followed Jesus but who, unlike those disciples in most instances, exhibited true, trusting faith. What is startling how the examples of "little people" are all those who could easily be overgeneralized as outcasts - a demon-possessed man (5:1-21), an unclean woman (5:25-34) and an outsider Gentile woman (7:24-30) to name a few - all had personal interactions with Jesus that revealed the true nature of their hearts. For example, the Gentile woman, who was most likely wealthy in her own right, has this powerful verbal exchange with him, which in essence reveals her humility, that she would love to be a dog in the presence of Christ! At the core of this is the fact that Jesus, even though overgeneralizations were available to him, chose in these instances to undergeneralize and treat each person in his or her particular circumstance.
Back to Betty. What if Betty, instead of depending on overgeneralizations, sought to undergeneralize in that instance. No, the wealthy woman wasn't acting humbly per se, but what undergeneralizing seeks to accomplish is an understanding of that person in that particular circumstance. So instead of thinking of her as a rich snob, what if she was having a bad day or was frustrated about her family situation this Christmas? What if the rich lady was actually struggling financially and was stressed with all the money she was spending? Betty may never know the specifics, but fighting against overgeneralization and functioning from a position of undergeneralization may allow Betty, you, and me to be more compassionate, patient, and understanding with those we come across each day. And in doing so, I believe the gospel can be shared more effectively.
So this year I resolve to resist a heavy dependence on overgeneralizing and fight for more dependence on undergeneralizing. Are you with me?
By Hs Grace for this New Year.