The Only Two Things You’ll Ever Need to Know About People

People matter. They matter when they love us. They matter when they hurt us. They matter when we don’t know if they’re going to break good or break bad on us. And because people matter, it’s important to know the two things that really matter about people

beauty and fear

Photo Credit: Gemma Bou via Compfight cc

Last month I was in an airport with a friend. He and his wife had booked seats together but, when they printed the boarding passes, they were seated at opposite ends of the plane. It was a nine-hour flight. I expressed my sympathy.

He looked at me with a sideways grin, and he said, “No worries, Kelly, we’ll sit together.”

I looked down at his boarding passes and wondered what he knew that I didn’t.

His grin grew as he headed toward the gate, “People want to help, Kelly. All you have to do is ask.”

People want to help.

My friend talked to the attendant at the gate, and he and his wife sat together on the plane. In fact, they ended up in business class.

My friend was aware of the first thing we all need to know about people:

People are basically good and wired for love and beauty.

Broken or Beautiful or Both?

Most of us have been trained to believe people are basically broken and bad at their core. At best, we believe people are selfish. At worst, dangerous.

Admittedly, I began my career as a psychologist with this assumption about people. I figured I was in charge of fixing the brokenness, correcting the rottenness.

But almost fifteen years later, I realize I was never really in charge of the fixing, because all along, my clients were fixing me. All along, they were teaching me about what is really at the center of people. And the truth is, beneath all the layers of protection and pretending, people are basically good and beautiful.

As a psychologist, I’m not just a repairman responsible for fixing brokenness. I’m also an explorer discovering beauty. And over the years, I’ve discovered it’s always there.

People are basically good, beautiful, and wired for love.

People want to be generous and they want to smile and they want to connect and they want to leave the world a better place in their wake. People get out of bed and they hope for something better and they want to be a part of making that better thing happen. People want to redeem the broken parts of this world and they want to be part of a beautiful story.

When People Don’t Act Beautifully

Except, sometimes we don’t act like it, do we?

When people dominate others and abuse power and act like animals, people don’t seem terribly good or beautiful.

When people get strung out on drugs or abandon their families or walk into a convenience store with a gun or commit any number of heinous acts both legal and illegal, people don’t seem terribly good or beautiful.

When we get lost in our thoughts and sit at a green light for a little too long and the guy behind us ends up with a red face and a big pulsing forehead vein and spittle hitting the windshield and one of his fingers sticking up in the air, people don’t seem terribly good or beautiful.

Which brings us to the only other thing we really need to know about people: if they don’t appear good and beautiful, it is because they are wounded and afraid.  

In October 2012, Taliban assassins attacked a fifteen year-old girl on her way home from school. Four years earlier, at the age of eleven, Malala Yousafzai had begun an organized resistance against the Taliban by insisting upon full access to education for all Pakistani girls. She made a name for herself and, and the Taliban had a bullet with that name on it.

The gunman leaned into the car of schoolgirls and shot three times. The first bullet entered Malala’s left eye and exited through her shoulder. The second two bullets missed and entered the arm of one of her companions.

At point blank range, the assassin missed.

Because, according to reports, his gun hand was shaking as he fired.

Fear can fester and mutate into incredible evil acts, and frankly, evil lives. But always, always, beneath the corrosion is a wound and the fear it creates. Fear of never being enough. Fear of never having enough. Fear of the other. Fear of ourselves.

The question is, when someone’s wounded fear has usurped their goodness and their love and their beauty, can we have a vision of him that is bigger than his bullet? Do we see only the evil of his gun, or can we also see the fearful shaking of his hand? Because if we see only the bullet he sends at us, we will send only a bullet back at him. And then he will send another bullet at us, and then we another back at him, and so on and so on.

And to hell with that. Literally. A living hell for everyone involved.

What If We Looked Closer?

Most of us are not dodging bullets of steel. But I think most of us are being pierced by bullets of a different kind—the words of our lovers, the rebellion of our children, the betrayal of our friends, the indifference of a stranger.

What if, instead of controlling or retaliating or hating, we looked past the bullets, and we looked for the shaking hand of the ones we love? What if we looked them in the eye and said, “So, you’re scared, too?” And what if we looked past the shaking hand and into their good and beautiful hearts?

What if we gave the same gift to ourselves? What if we looked in the mirror and decided we are done making war on our own hearts? What if we said, “Hush,” to the wounded whisper of our fear? What if, instead, we listened to the voice calling us beautiful?

What if?

I think our hearts would change. By becoming more what they already are. More loving and more beautiful.

The world changes this way. One beautiful heart at a time.

Question: Do you agree or disagree? What do you think are the most important things to know about people? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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DON’T MISS…

 My recent guest post. Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, and I guest posted at the Intervarsity blog. Click here to read the most important thing to know about therapists, therapy, and why the Good News should be called the Good-Enough News.

 The next Google Hangout. It’s this Sunday at 3:30pm CST. If you need to calculate what time that is for you, click here. If you haven’t already signed up to receive updates about it, click here for instruction about how to do so.

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Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “In Which Death Loses Its Sting”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • barbaratodish

    I agree, that police, robbers, etc., are MORE afraid than their soon to be victims. If we all told our bullies, our abusers, our would be victimizers that we KNOW and we FEEL thath they are more afraid than we are, that we know that they are under so much stress because they are feeling like they are mistunderstood, unsupported, fearful, struggling to FEEL that they even have a RIGHT to exist, then perhaps we could all begin to love ourselves AND each other.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Well said, Barbara! Sometimes I read a comment that sums up my post in about a quarter of the words. Yours is that comment today. Thank you for sharing your insights and your voice!

  • Lisa Bartelt

    So, so, true. This is something we’ve learned the hard way through personal experiences of brokenness. That the way people act isn’t who they are but it’s a reflection of something deeper. Because we have been poor, we see poverty differently. Because our marriage was been through the wringer, we see relationships, and marriages, differently. Because we have seen abuse and its effects, we see the abused and the abusers differently. It’s not easy to look past the action. Not at all. But we’re slowly seeing people. I just read in the Gospel of Matthew the other day, the story of the woman who washes Jesus’ feet while he’s eating at a Pharisee’s house (the details are a little fuzzy right now) and everyone ignores her except to criticize her under their breath. Jesus says to them, “Do you see this woman?” And I love that. Because they all technically saw her. They couldn’t ignore her. But I don’t think anyone really SAW her. And that’s what we all want: for someone to really see us and love us. Wonderful post. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lisa, thank you for this reflection. I read recently in a book that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a spirituality, it’s a geography, it tells us where to stand. Having stood with the the marginalized, it’s much more difficult to maintain an us-them perspective, isn’t it? I think that’s why it’s so hard to be a therapist and still place people in categories. Glad to be on this journey with you!

  • Just Thinkin’

    Ah, Kelly. This touched me so deeply. I am constantly amazed at your capacity to capture intangible and tenuous concepts with such clarity and discernment. “Looking past the gun to the shaking hand that holds it” is particularly relevant to me – as a South African it was my unfortunate reality to have been hijacked at gunpoint 4 times, once surviving only because an angel must have stuck his little finger in the barrel…

    However, far more relevant to my life and to everyone else’s – marriages, friendships, workplace etc is the reality that those soft bullets – the tone of voice, the criticisms, the negativity all come from desperate people coping with their world the best way they know how. There is no malice, really, only brokenness.

    My freedom came when I learned to see the brokenness before I allowed myself to feel the sting of the bullet. Now I am able – most times – to reach past the gun to comfort the pain that holds it. I have been able – most times – to stop being defensive when hurt and to find ways to bring healing to the hurter.

    And, because of you, I have a beautifully written post that explains why. And enables this message of grace to spread wide.

    Awesome post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Vaughan. And, wow. I feel like i get bits and pieces of your story and I’m hungry for more. So grateful for that angel, because I’m glad you’re on this planet with me. I want to be with people who see the brokenness before the bullet.

      • Just Thinkin’

        I am humbled at your words, and equally grateful that you walk this world with me 🙂 Blessings.

      • Just Thinkin’

        You inspired me to write about that experience… go have a look 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      And dude, I just discovered you’re posting on The Good Men Project! Congratulations!

      • Just Thinkin’

        Thanks! Enjoying it, but at the moment they are largely reposting from my own blog (with permission of course 🙂 Still have to figure how to write 2 blogs a week!

        • drkellyflanagan

          If you’re anything like me, you could do it, but life would get completely out of balance. Besides, cross-posts of existing content are a great way to find a wider audience without lots of extra work. And your writing deserves a wider audience!

    • Colleen Shields

      Love the metaphor of reaching ‘past the gun to comfort the pain that holds it’ and seeing ‘the brokenness before…feel[ing] the sting of the bullet’. It’s so noble to turn the other cheek and ‘stop being defensive when hurt’ and finding ways to ‘bring healing to the hurter’.
      When we choose this higher road and stop reacting (and ACT, instead), we, and the rest of the world, will transform into something beautiful and exquisite.

      • Just Thinkin’

        Hi, Colleen. Thanks for your comments, much appreciated. Kelly brings out the best in me, as I am sure he does for many others!

  • Angela

    Most people are mostly good most of the time. I agree Kelly. It doesn’t keep you safe 100% of the time, but it doesn’t cut you off from the benefits of others helping you, or you helping others the way thqt cynicism does. Mostly trust people. It’s a risk, but sure, life is full of dangers

    • drkellyflanagan

      Angela, I love your attitude: yep, making ourselves vulnerable is a risk, but all of life is a risk, so why not make our risks beautiful.

  • Brenda

    Amen and amen!

  • Dave

    Kelly, this is a great read for dispatchers too. I shared it on my facebook page.

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  • Colleen Shields

    Yes, I agree. We all have wounds, and when we choose to empathetically ‘see through’ someone’s reactive behaviors TO their wounds, and on to their underlying innocent part(s) that originally got wounded, instead – the abuse, neglect, and shaming stops. In the wise words of John Bradshaw: let’s ‘pass it back, and not pass it on’.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Colleen, right on. The words of Bradshaw remind me of the words of Richard Rohr: “If we don’t transform it, we will transfer it.” And I love the way you describe the good and beautiful as “underlying innocent parts.”

  • Laura H. Davis

    I am so pleased to have found the basis of my faith in others so well illustrated .once again I am renewed in faith with the sure knowledge that I am never alone and will never will be even in the solitude of my own mind.

  • Geetanjali

    Sir, I recently read a blog-post of yours that seemed to be an instant like with all my friends. You write so beautifully and realistically, it touched my heart. I agree with you….the only reason that can be attributed to the untoward behavior of some people is because they are wounded and scared of what they are, what they have become and what their future holds in store for them. And all our attempts to make more money, the greed for more power and the thirst for fame, are ultimately in vain. Our purpose is to live our life to the fullest in terms of making people cheerful and all our acts boil down to spreading joy and happiness in the world.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Geetanjali, and I’m glad you joined in here with a comment. I want to live on the planet where everyone thinks like you. A world full of people spreading joy and happiness has to be an upgrade, doesn’t it!?

      • Geetanjali

        Yes, it surely does 🙂

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