The Stranger in the Corner

A priest was arrested for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover police officer. That’s what this morning’s local newscast reported. After watching this my 11-year-old son, Zac, turned to me and asked, “How could he do something like that if he’s a priest?”

Just the other day a friend was complaining that his father showed little interest in his life. My friend got more compliments and interest in his work from total strangers than he did from his own father. He wondered, “How could he be so disinterested in me? After all, he’s my father.”

[sociallocker id=”1846″] This same basic question shows up everywhere. How could a mother kill her own kids? How could a husband murder his own wife? How could my own child have stolen from me? How could my own (fill in the blank with your favorite label) do this to me?

Why are we so often shocked by these types of situations? How can we explain this? Here’s what I told my son.

“Imagine there’s a total stranger standing over there in the corner,” I said. “He’s a totally normal looking guy but a complete stranger. We know absolutely nothing about him. Can you imagine that?” I asked.

My son nodded.

“Okay, do you think that man is capable of doing good things in his life?”

“Sure,” my son responded.

“Me, too. Now, do you think he is also capable of doing bad things in his life?”

“Of course.”

“I agree,” I said. “But let’s change things a bit. What if we called this guy ‘Fred’ – do you think he’s still capable of doing both good and bad things?”

Zac nodded again.

“How about if we called him ‘Barney’?”

He nodded again but with a confused look on his face.

“Now, how about if we called him ‘Priest’?

My son smiled. And just like that he understood.

“Don’t ever forget what I just taught you,” I told him. “I don’t care what people are called, whether it’s Fred, Daddy, Priest, President or Doctor, the name does not change the fact that they’re human. They’re capable of many things. Good things, bad things and everything in between.”

This is such an obvious point, isn’t it? We all “know” this, so why even bring it up?
Because while we all “know” it, we too often forget it.

If you don’t believe me, just ask yourself why you were so shocked or angered the last time someone acted against their label. Perhaps your “spouse” ridiculed rather than comforted you. Your “best friend” betrayed your confidence. Or maybe you heard of a teacher, preacher or parent doing something “despicable”. Whatever the situation, chances are a label, and all the expectations we’ve been trained to believe goes with it, blinded us to reality of the human condition.

Whether we call someone Fred, Priest, Mom, Dad, Son, Daughter, or anything else the label doesn’t remove what that person – as a human being – is capable of.

But of course, we already knew this, didn’t we?

I just wonder how long it will be before we forget it and get blindsided – again.

Originally published May 5, 2004