The shimmering surface of a lake, glowing in the evening sun, may inspire us with its beauty. Yet, hidden beneath its surface may be an ugly blanket of toxic sludge. On the other hand, the ocean surface that is marred by unsightly patches of oil spilled by a tanker, may conceal within its depths animal life of great beauty. Can it be that we often misjudge what we see because we merely skim the surface and fail to penetrate the depth of matters? Yes, the truth is often hidden from us. That’s why we are warned by Aesop (620-560 B.C.) that “Appearances often are deceiving.” We are also cautioned by Christ who taught, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24)
Why is it that we often fail to use right judgment and arrive at false conclusions? The reasons are many. First, before any information arrives at our intellect for analysis it must pass through our preconceptions, assumptions, beliefs, opinions, prejudices, selective memory, and feelings. Also, our body not only collects data, but influences it. For example, our hormones and blood sugar levels can affect our moods, thinking, attitude, and behavior. In other words, we see what we feel instead of feeling what we see. Our mind is also a master of deception. For instance, we may judge someone to be intellectually inferior to us simply because they share another opinion.
No, things are not always what they appear to be. The ‘drunk’ sleeping on the sidewalk across the street may be an exhausted construction worker taking a noon nap. The ‘stupid’ student may be a bright, but poor, child that is too hungry to focus on the words of his teacher. And the ‘imbecile’ that simply stares and smiles at me when I ask her for directions may be a foreigner that doesn’t understand our language and culture.
Be slow to judge others, for appearances can often be deceptive. Edwin Hubbel Chapin (1814 ~ 1880) offers this same advice in very elegant terms, “Do not judge from mere appearances; for the lift laughter that bubbles on the lip often mantles over the depths of sadness, and the serious look may be the sober veil that covers a divine peace and joy. The bosom can ache beneath diamond brooches; and many a blithe heart dances under coarse wool.”
Another powerful example was given by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 ~ 1930) who wrote, “The most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.”
Imagine someone seeing the moon for the first time. They may falsely conclude it has a crescent shape or that it is always veiled in mist. Just as the moon appears in various ways, depending on the weather and season, the appearance and behavior of people change according to their moods and experiences. Although their air, body language, and mannerisms may reveal some information, it is information on how they are feeling NOW. All of that is subject to change.
The lesson, then, is clear; in dealing with others we need to withhold judgment and question our conclusions. We are quick to label people as uncooperative or as ‘jerks.’ But that is just because we skim the surface and ignore the depths of their souls. Are we aware of the emotional pain that they are in? Do we know about the struggles they are going through? If not, how can we rush to judgment?
The secret of living a successful life is to live a life of balance. For example, although we must avoid misjudging others, we must be equally vigilant in avoiding being misled by others. Young women, for example, may be too generous in judging their boyfriends. An experienced and rational person may see Sally’s boyfriend as an unambitious freeloader. However, in the eyes of Sally, he may be a ‘free and independent spirit.’ He may also be, if Sally marries him, the cause of many heartaches in the future. It’s time for Sally to realize that if a bird waddles like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it, indeed, may be a duck!
Although appearances can be deceiving, they can also be revealing. The book that our new acquaintance is reading, for instance, may reveal a common interest. If they smoke, it may display a lack of regard for their health, and if they’re carrying a gym bag, it may suggest they’re interested in physical fitness. The point is to always strive to take a balanced approach, garnering useful information while guarding against drawing false conclusions.
Another cause for arriving at incorrect conclusions is lack of knowledge and experience about the circumstances of others. Herman Melville (1819 ~ 1891) gives a perfect example, “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” It’s easy for those of us who have a job to tell a panhandler, “Get a job!” It’s just as easy for those of us who have never experienced mental illness, to tell a patient living on the street, “Go to work!” So, to prevent us from turning into crass, cold-hearted, and insensitive people, we need to educate ourselves on the suffering of others.
Alas, still another reason for making mistaken assumptions is because of the fact that much of the work that is done in the world is to make things appear what they are not. Consider the lies perpetrated by advertisers. Here’s an example. I recently bought some paper for my computer printer. The attractive package boldly proclaims the paper is “Coated on both sides for durability,” and the paper is called “Sharprint.” Did they say durable? It was the flimsiest paper I ever used. Did they say “Sharprint?” It produced the blurriest text and graphics I have ever seen (blurry because of ‘bleeding;’ that is, the ink spreads throughout the paper). Fortunately, I had a few sheets of my regular paper left and it delivered its usual, spectacular results. I pity the person who just bought their first computer printer and a box of “Sharprint” paper. When they see the horrible results they get, they will probably think it is the fault of the printer! Can you see how easy it is to arrive at a false conclusion?
Before ending, let’s also consider our concern for our appearance. At times, people are more interested in correcting their image than they are in correcting themselves. What is it that we want? To SEEM or to BE? I turn to Socrates (469 ~ 399 BC) for the answer, “The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world, is to be in reality what we would appear to be.” Finally, let’s remember that our reasoning power is of no value if our conclusions are based on faulty assumptions, so let’s be ever on the alert, carefully substituting appearances for facts.