Context is Everything
If a photo is worth a thousand words then a video is worth ten thousand and knowing its context is worth a million.
There’s a viral video going around of two women arm wrestling. One of the competitors is growling and grunting and carrying on like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I watched it with tears flooding my lap — I haven’t laughed so hard in who knows how long. Truly, I watched it twice in a row, howling so much that the boys and Ryan in the next room were yelling, “what is it? What are you watching? Show us! Show us!”
It wasn’t even so much that the behavior was coming from a woman—I liked her tough approach to a hard task—but that it was coming at all. (I’m fairly certain I would have had a similar reaction if a man had been performing the same vocal gymnastics and WWF-type showmanship as her.)
Obviously I have no idea what it takes to psyche yourself up for an arm wrestling competition (my upper body more closely resembles Olive Oyl than Popeye), but I could guess that her behavior was all part of a competition technique to get the mind and body ready for a fight. But even still, I just couldn’t stop laughing; the entire thing struck me as hilarious.
I reposted the video on facebook with a haphazard comment about laughing until I was crying and woke up the next morning to a (non-confrontational) comment from a thoughtful friend who said she had read in the comment section of the post that the woman has a disability.
I about lost my breakfast.
Whether that story was true or not, the truth sunk into my bones: I hadn’t given a second thought to the context of what I had just seen. Shame on me.
It reminded me of the one and only episode of Bondi Surf Rescue that I watched a few years ago. In the show, the camera crew followed a young child who was hurt—she must have been around eleven. I can’t remember what her injuries were, but they were fairly minor. You wouldn’t know it by the way she ranted and raved. Anyone near by would have thought she was dying as the life guards worked hard to control the situation. It was out of control, over the top—a grossly inappropriate reaction. Her mother did little to try and calm her down or talk sense into her, but instead shrugged her shoulders toward the camera and appeared like she would take no responsibility to help placate the situation.
I immediately judged both the mother and the child while empathizing with the baffled life guards attempting to pacify the young girl on their own.
As the drama unfolded it was revealed that the girl was on the Autism spectrum. The show editors had purposefully cut and added details to make audience members like me despise her and then be shocked into sympathy for both the girl and her mother as we understood the context of the situation. I was furious! Furious because I felt sucker punched by the producers, and furious because I had been so quick to judge the behavior that I knew so little about. I should have known better.
The show ended and I felt both manipulated and ashamed—how dare they? and how dare I? It made me wonder how many times I’ve judged children or parents in public places when I had no idea the context. (And if that was the result, maybe it was a good concept for a show after all.)
Seventeen years ago I stood in a church service in Louisiana. The congregation was entirely different than what I was used to. For starters, they were ethnically diverse (which I loved), but the even more blaring difference was how wildly charismatic they felt next to the mildly charismatic church I grew up in. I was fascinated by everything about the place and enjoyed the (weird-to-me) service incredibly.
Except for that one woman in the row behind me.
Although I didn’t keep an exact count, I estimate she exclaimed “GLORY!” approximately three hundred eighty seven times throughout the worship service, preaching, and prayer. She would not stop saying it. Over and over she rattled on, “Glory! Glory! Glory!”
I was not amused.
After the service I was speaking with the pastor’s wife—a dear friend of my mom’s from their days together on the Jesus commune in the 1970’s. “Did you see the woman seated just behind you?” she asked me. (Boy did I ever.) I nodded, mumbling something about noticing her while biting my tongue so as to not say something I’d later regret.
“Her son was killed in a drive-by shooting last week,” Joy told me, “we have lots of gang problems here.” (My mouth was gaping like an idiot by this point.) “The way she’s clinging to Jesus in her pain is just so beautiful.”
I was stunned to repentance right there in my annoyance and pride. Never again have I judged another person’s behavior in a worship service since, because when I begin to, the glory woman comes flashing into my mind. (Bless her. And I mean that. I have so much to thank her for.)
Being disgruntled by that bereaved mother’s way of worship was one of the best things that has ever happened to me in terms of understanding my smallness and inadequacy when it comes to sizing up people’s methods of worship. I have absolutely no ground to stand on—no authority, no right, no context.
A couple thousand years ago a woman interrupted Jesus and his disciples as they reclined after a meal. She came in and broke her jar of perfume, pouring it out and using her hair—her hair!— to wash his feet.
Those around him were horrified. (How could he not be bothered this woman’s uncouth behavior?!) In those days only “loose” women let down their hair in public, and it was considered a statement of being—ahem—available. (Was she coming on to Jesus? How amazingly inappropriate!) Not only that, but she was using her entire dowry to wash a man’s feet. (Couldn’t that money be better used another way? And what exactly does this woman expect Jesus to give back?)
But Jesus didn’t ask those questions; his perspective was not limited by the obvious conclusions of man. He saw her undignified behavior as an extravagant act of worship. He loved the way she approached him, unhindered by what everyone around might think. He received her offering because she was giving it wholeheartedly. Jesus knew the context of this woman’s life and heart position and—because he understood the whole picture—he wasn’t seduced into rash judgements based on a glimpse of information and outward appearance.
“Context is everything.” That statement is more than a tired cliche.
When we know context we are slower to judge, slower to write people off, slower to feel disdain, slower to puff ourselves up in self-righteous pride.
I googled the arm wrestler’s story and after searching for twenty minutes still couldn’t confirm that she was indeed disabled. It’s worth noting here that even if she does have a disability, it mightn’t have any implications in her wrestling—it’s possible she has a totally unrelated disability, or none at all. But that’s beside the point. The real issue was that I had made assumptions without context. Acknowledging even the possibility of her limitations gave me an entirely different lens.
Watching the clip again with this in mind was like watching a completely different video. No longer did it make me cry with wild laughter. It still made me smile (because it is a wonder how she musters up so much energy through the snorting and roaring and grunting that is so uncharacteristic of every day life), but as I entertained the possibilities that might contribute to her behavior, my empathy snuffed out my ability to laugh at her expense.
The revelation made me wonder: Who is judging me without context today? I can only do my best to live in a way that helps people see the bigger picture. But ultimately, people will only see what they see—my life in instagrams, my words in forty character tweets, my hurried moments at the grocery store with my children, the way I respond or react behind the wheel. I hope they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt when there’s no time to tell the entire backstory to my life.
Context is everything. I remind myself of that truth today as I wake up with new eyes to see people around me—social media feeds included.
Friends, when’s the last time you considered context when seeing a stranger’s questionable behavior? (Or a friend’s/co-worker’s/family member’s less-than-desireable behavior?)
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