In psychology, one of the essential tenets is that people can change. Within that broad principle, there's also the idea that people should be treated based on who they are today, not who they were in the past. Recognizing transformation means breaking away from the confines of past impressions and allowing room for individuals to redefine themselves. In other words, give people the grace to grow.
So Why Is It So Hard To Do?
Part of it is our biology. We tend to cling to our first impressions or past experiences. First impressions are lasting, and we're wired to create mental frameworks about people based on initial perceptions. While these frameworks are vital for navigating life, they can also become severely limiting if they keep us incapable of perceiving change. But to maintain fruitful relationships, we must update our frameworks and accommodate the new information, identities, and ideologies people adopt over time.
I used to live near a busy street and routinely would tell my daughter she would have to go out of her way to walk to the corner and cross at the light. As she was headed out to visit a friend one day, I did my customary warning: "Remember to cross at the light." My daughter respectfully reminded me that she now possesses a driver's license and, as someone who can legally drive, she also knows how to cross a street. Oops. I knew I had to switch my framework from "child" to "young adult" and treat her accordingly. Parents are wont to proclaim to their children, "But you'll always be my baby," even as their children are eligible for social security. It's a disconnect, but it's not malicious.
Sometimes, however, viewing people through the lens of their past is not so benevolent – especially when we go to efforts to dredge it up.
The Power of Digging into Someone's Past: A Harmful Weapon
In the fall of 2019, Carson King, a college student in Iowa, was attending a college football game, and seeing TV cameras pointed at the section where he was sitting, hastily got up and held up a poster on which he scrawled: "Busch Light Supply Needs Replenished" (OK, so he wasn't an English major), with his Venmo account number. And then he sat down to enjoy the game.
Soon, his phone started blowing up with text messages as hundreds of dollars poured into his account. Carson realized something significant was happening and decided to capitalize on it – not for himself – but to raise money for the local children's hospital. That night, he created a digital campaign, and to make a long story short, he raised well over a million dollars between personal and corporate donations.
Anheuser Busch knew an advertising goldmine when it saw it, created a commemorative beer can: Carson King – Iowa Legend - and pledged to give Carson a year of free beer and a million dollars to his cause. Eventually, the fund grew to 3 million dollars, as everyone was getting on board for the feel-good story of the year.
So, someone decided it was high time to take down Carson King. Aaron Calvin, a reporter for the local newspaper, dug into Carson's social media posts and discovered that eight years prior when Carson was 16, he tweeted some jokes that were racist, and this reporter outed him. Immediately, Carson apologized, saying he didn't remember the tweets but was shocked to see what he had thought was funny when he was a teenager, and deleted the posts – proclaiming that this is not who he is today. However, in a public display of virtue signaling, Anheuser Busch immediately severed ties with Carson.
From Judgment to Acceptance: Embracing Growth in Others
Digging into someone's past is not just for nasty internet trolls. It can happen to the best of us. It's a paradox of human nature that we desire others to see how far we've come yet resist extending the same perception toward them. For example, couples who engage in "kitchen sink arguments" rehash complaints from the past ad nauseum.
When one of my children criticized me recently, I asked whether the objectionable behavior had occurred even once in this century, and, if not, having apologized repeatedly, gently wondered whether it was time to move on. We are not who we were on our best days, nor are we who were on our worst.
Trying to use someone's past to hurt them could be a power move, a sign of jealousy, insecurity, or just an attempt to deflect from the person's shortcomings. "I'm not like that – you're like that. Remember that time…"
Joseph's Example: Seeing Transformation in His Brothers
So, what does this have to do with the parsha, Vayigash? The story of Joseph culminates in Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers, who were understandably shocked and terrified that Joseph would take revenge. Instead, Joseph reassures them that even though they intended him harm, it was God who sent him to Egypt on a mission. Joseph saw himself as God's servant rather than their victim, and they were bit players in bringing about his ultimate destiny.
While that is a high level of consciousness, it still doesn't let them off the hook. Just because you recognize that someone's harmful behavior was part of the Divine Plan doesn't mean the person is not responsible for their actions.
But – in staging the elaborate tests and ruses to hold Shimon hostage and then Benjamin, Joseph was trying to get at the mettle of his brothers. Were they the same insanely jealous siblings who threw him into a pit and handed him off to a traveling caravan? Did they show any remorse? Would they come to the defense of Benjamin, who, as the child of Rachelle, was Joseph's full brother and presumably the favored son in place of Joseph? And did they seem to care about the irreparable harm that would come to Jacob if he lost another son?
Joseph was able to see that his brothers had changed. And he decided to relate to them as they were standing before him. The ability to appreciate the present person, independent of their past, rests on the pillars of forgiveness and letting go. Acknowledging transformations often means accepting mistakes made in the past and choosing to move beyond them. This doesn't mean forgetting or disregarding them but focusing more on who the person has become today.
Growing with Grace: Embracing Change and Letting Go of Labels
Today, a rising ideology forces people into rigid identities based on external factors that they cannot change. Appreciating the journey of transformation rejects that ideology and acknowledges the multifaceted nature of human personality. Interacting with people with a clean slate in every moment becomes increasingly valuable and rejects a "fixed identity," allowing them to express their evolved selves.
Recognizing transformation involves a profound understanding of our greatest strength - the capacity to change, grow, evolve, and better oneself. In so doing, we foster healthier relationships with others and create a stable foundation for personal growth and self-improvement. After all, isn’t that the essence of the command to “judge favorably?”
Practical Steps to Embrace Change and Recognize Transformation
1. Be mindful of your first impressions: our first impressions can be lasting and prevent us from seeing changes in others. Be mindful of this and approach new people and situations with an open mind.
2. Practice empathy: Try to put yourself in the shoes of others and imagine what they might be going through. This can help you understand their behavior and recognize changes in their attitudes and beliefs.
3. Challenge your assumptions: We all have assumptions and biases that can prevent us from recognizing changes in others. Challenge these assumptions by actively seeking out new information and perspectives.
4. Ask questions: If you notice changes in others, ask them about it! This can help you better understand their experiences and show interest in their growth and transformation.
5. Be patient: Change takes time, and it's important to be patient with others as they go through their own transformation. Celebrate their progress and support them along the way.
P.S. Don't forget yourself in this process. Especially as we head into the upcoming new year, it is common to look at faults and ways to improve. Remember to judge yourself favorably and acknowledge how you have grown and evolved over this past year. And this is something to celebrate.
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