One of the most important things that I’ve come to understand about people is that they change. Time and circumstance teach different lessons, and whether we believe it or not, we take all that in as we grow up, grow older, and grow wiser.
There are lots of contributors to this personal development journey, but our environment is probably the most significant. The people we surround ourselves with affect our beliefs, our language, our philosophy of right and wrong. They teaches us the norms of the neighborhood, the rules and expectations we are meant to follow.
When I was younger, my upbringing made it difficult for me to understand this about people. My perspective was narrowed and I couldn’t more than functionally understand why people did things differently than I did. Any way other than mine seemed illogical. But I understand now. I understand that we are a product of our environment and that we can each only follow our own moral compass.
Yesterday I was reading an article in the New Yorker about Megan Phelps-Roper, prominent daughter of the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC is most widely known for picketing the funerals of servicemen and shouting hateful slurs at the LGBT community. According to them, anyone who is not a member of the Church, even other Christians, is a sinner and doomed to Hell.
The article focuses on Phelps-Roper’s upbringing and her experiences, both as a member and as an exile from the Church. She grew up in a loving family she believed was imbued with Heavenly purpose and, despite the hateful remarks she received in response to her professions, she believed in what she was doing. Her experiences and her environment had taught her that this was the right course of action and she wanted desperately to save people’s souls as she thought her own had been saved by her family.
It was many years later when her family’s philosophy began to unravel for her. She wept over the deaths of people that her family considered sinners and cried over natural disasters the WBC claimed were a judgment from God. She began to see a different path, a path that was helped along by people she met outside the Church and her family. She changed through the influence of patient, logical people, people who were willing to challenge the WBC’s philosophy in a way that was both respectful as well as insightful in order to help Phelps-Roper come to her own conclusions.
And I think that with everything that’s going on in the world today, Phelps-Roper’s lesson is an especially important one to remember. It’s so easy on the Internet to spew hateful, vindictive comments out of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of what’s different or new. But we need to meet that fear with kindness and respect. Respect for people who have different beliefs. Respect for people who grew up in environments different than our own. Respect for people who in the most fundamental and biological ways, mirror our own humanity. And we must do this, even if they’ve caused us pain in the past or if we disagree with them.
No single person has all the answers. No one is right all the time. We’re all just people, learning and changing and growing as we get older and I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts of life.
Though I couldn’t understand it when I was younger, I now treasure that opportunity for change and for difference. Because as I have changed and Phelps-Roper has changed, so too can others who find themselves faced with new challenges and opportunities in life. So we must meet those people with respect.
Even the Bible says, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” You never know what outcome an interaction will bring, how it will affect you or your acquaintance, what each of you will learn or gain from the experience. So cherish that chance to learn something new and meet your fear with respect and kindness.
It’s the human thing to do.