Standing with others may be the first step to helping them

Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived to be 82 and had a remarkable career as a writer, philosopher, scientist and statesman.

I have been thinking these last few days about a quotation attributed to the German writer Goethe:

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.”

It’s one of those inspirational quotes you might see on Facebook, but does it hold up under scrutiny?

Having just finished reading Gregory Boyle’s “Tattoos on the Heart,” which I mentioned a few posts back, I’ve been in a more accepting frame of mind lately. Boyle’s message is that everyone has intrinsic value—even the gang members he works with in East Los Angeles. A Jesuit priest, Boyle notes that Jesus loved everyone, no matter who they were (leper, prostitute, tax collector, criminal—there was room for everyone in the kingdom). Indeed, the only instructions we have from Jesus—and Boyle—are to love one another, especially those who may be different from us. Accept, understand and cherish them for who they are, not for who you wish they could be.

Boyle paraphrases the words of a Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, who says the truest measure of compassion lies not in our service to those on the margins but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. The only way we can eliminate slavery, poverty and other social injustice, Boyle says, is to stand with those who are suffering: “We stand in solidarity with the slave, and by so doing, we diminish slavery’s ability to stand. By casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing.”

This is heady stuff—and hard to do. I suppose it is the difference between handing a homeless person a few bucks and inviting them to have lunch with you at Denny’s. It is far easier to give someone money and be on your way, thinking that you have helped in some small way. But whether we look at a homeless person as Goethe might or through Boyle’s eyes, we diminish that person when we walk away without recognizing our kinship and their worth as a human being.

How do we help someone become the person they are capable of becoming? I think it begins with resisting the temptation to judge them or impose our values on them. If we are willing to love them and stand with them, as Boyle suggests, we can’t help but nudge them closer to their potential.

A big part of leadership and management is influencing and changing behavior. We know that a leader’s job is to create expectations. We know from psychology, management science and experience that when you expect more, you generally get more. When you expect less, you get less. You treat people the way you want to be treated.

Boyle illustrates this principle over and over in his book. Between the poignant stories of life and death are the truly human and funny incidents he relates—taking a homie to a clothing store to buy a suit, treating homies to a nice restaurant meal or flying them to Washington to meet the president. He accepts these homeboys and girls for who they are, but he also says, in effect, “When you’re with me, you can expect to be treated as an equal, as a member of my family. You are my kin.”

I think we can rewrite Goethe for modern times (à la Boyle) as: “If I accept you as others see you, I will make you worse; however, if I validate you and treat you as one of my own, I will help you become the person you are capable of becoming.”

Boyle shows us that it takes courage and faith to change our perceptions and behavior towards those who are on the margins, but it is possible. I think the lessons from Tattoos on the Heart are also transferable to our everyday lives. We can’t expect employees, family members or friends to change if we don’t first meet them where they are—then move forward together in the realization that we must remove the barriers between “us” and “them” before we can help someone become the person they are capable of becoming.

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