A few weeks ago a guy walked into our gym. He was clad in tattered black leather, and even though he was small in stature, he carried a great weight on his shoulders and behind his eyes. The bitter smell of nicotine assaulted me as he came closer.
“I need some help with my nutrition.” He said.
I raised my eyebrows speculatively, because in the five seconds this man had been a part of my consciousness I'd already judged him. I'd decided he couldn't afford my services and wasn't someone truly committed to being healthy. Embarrassing, hard to admit, but true. And let's be honest, we all do this. It is part of our nature as humans to neatly separate our worlds into categories and boxes that can be stacked, measured and evaluated. Just one of the many clever survival adaptations in our prodigious quivers. To live is to judge. However, we also get to actively choose whether we let these instant (and as of yet unfounded) judgments effect our decision making and future attitudes. Since I'm in the business of helping people and generally think of myself as a good person, I make a sincere effort to let people show me what box I should put them in before I just do it myself.
Given all this, I ignored my gut reaction, stuck out my hand, smiled broadly, and said “Well then you've come to the right place!”
We chatted for a couple minutes, and as he talked my defenses lowered. He was currently attending a rehab program, and expressed a real desire to improve his health. He said all the right things, and my authenticity detector didn't sound an alarm at any point. We set up a future meeting so that he could get money together, and when he left I was excited about helping him step into the version of himself that he desperately wanted to see when looking in a mirror. That meeting was scheduled for yesterday.
Even though I had decided to give him a chance, I'm not an idiot. My cynical underbelly kept warning me about trusting “people like that”, and I even texted my wife and asked her to place odds on whether he would actually show up. She seemed to think the odds were rather unfavorable – and she was right. As I puttered around the gym folding towels and sweeping the floor, I grimaced and shook my head with the realization that my initial negative assumptions had been proved right. He wasn’t coming.
That first gut reaction was the result of a lifetime of accumulated experiences and observations. When the man in black walked through the door my brain instantly completed thousands of minute calculations and kicked out the best response it could: “Warning. Do not trust this man.” As I already alluded to, this is important data and not to be minimized or trifled with. Often times it saves your life to listen to these warnings. But sometimes, can’t we choose to give people the benefit of the doubt? It didn’t cost me anything to set that appointment and be there for him should he manage to navigate his minefield of obstacles long enough to find his way to our gym again.
I’m as judgmental as anyone so please don’t take this as proselytizing, but I’d like to think even though I got burned this time, I’d act the same way the next time. The man in black is clearly in a struggle for his life – how can he win that battle if people around him don’t have the courage to see him as he could be, to respond to his humanity, and to offer hope and maybe even a helping hand? My brain told me not to trust “people that like”, but what does that even mean? People like what? Aren’t we all dumpster fires in our own unique ways? How many times could someone have quite justifiably written you off completely, but didn’t? Call me a bleeding heart, call me naïve, call me gullible – but I chose to believe in him, and I’m going to do that again. I choose to see the gold in people, because it makes us both feel more human. And, here’s where I get really airy-fairy, I feel like we can all make that choice. Maybe not all the time, or even most of the time, but every time we are able to overcome our discomfort and inherent narcissism to connect with someone else’s struggle, it makes this world just a little less scary. You do what feels right to you, but I can use all the help I can get.