History In An Hour via FlickrWe have many proverbs, generalizations, and rules of thumb that aim to guide us. Yet, we must be discerning and remember to look below the surface in their various applications. Even the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible requires the application of judgment, not merely knee-jerk and slavish embrace of a superficial meaning. For example, here are two famous proverbs that require deeper thought to avoid direct contradiction:
4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26 (ESV).
Obviously, we have to discern the differing circumstances and settings in which each proverb is appropriate. For example, if an angry, hostile, slandering fool is trying to bait you before others, then do not imitate his hostile manner; or the fool will have thereby gained his goal of discrediting you before others.
Yet, if a fool is causing outrageous scandal, then it is sometimes necessary to unmask him publicly and stop the bullying. There is a famous scene in American history of the nineteen fifties when an Army attorney put an end to the endless, demagogic bullying of Sen. Joe McCarthy by simply uttering these words at a televised congressional hearing: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" (see link).
We need to go below the surface. In a similar way, we need to be wary of making superficial judgments about others. We tend to assume blithely that "nice is good"--but not so fast. The person who seems so agreeable and eager to please may be operating on the basis of a gravely disordered, rather than a healthy, personality. For example, a man who enjoys the company of a very compliant, eager-to-please, and accommodating woman may end up finding out that she has been and is too compliant with too many other men. From the other gender perspective, a woman who always gets her way with a man may find that, in the end, he is really not a "man" worth having at all but rather a spineless shell good for nothing.
Or we may thrill to see someone stubbornly defiant in the midst of challenges and unwaveringly persistent in achieving personal goals. Yet, is such "toughness" really so admirable when in the service of self-aggrandizement? Think of all the tyrants of history and the petty tyrants of the more mundane settings of daily life.
We also have to be wary, at times, even of "family values." Unfortunately, in some situations, some family members need to be avoided. In the famous television series "I, Claudius" about ancient Rome, produced in the nineteen seventies, Tiberius, the future emperor, would have been better off having nothing at all to do with his evil, scheming, and manipulative mother. Her actions led to the abject and debauched disintegration of his own personal honor, sanity, and happiness, not to mention the terrible effects inflicted on others. She was a parent that should not have been honored with either obedience or deference or cooperation.
There is no substitute for looking below the surface before applying our trove of generalizations about people and how to relate to them. Analytical reason needs to resist the urge to embrace the superficial and false response. We will save ourselves and others a lot of trouble.
The question that recurs, at least for me, is this: "Is it really good?" The "it" can be anything that many people think or assume is fine and desirable. Is what we work so hard for really good? Are the habits we have really good? Is the way we dress or allow our children to dress really good? We can get more specific and concrete. Is abortion on demand really good? Is flaunting in public what only a spouse should see really good? Is the automatic resort to alcohol to relax and have a good time really good? Is turning a blind, tolerant eye to sexual chaos really good? Is associating with certain people, with whom we are expected to associate, really good? Is a revered cultural trait, maybe in our ethnic background, really good? Or is it time to say that the emperor has no clothes and liberate ourselves from bad assumptions?