I Assume the Worst

It is so easy for me to assume the worst. And it is frightening.

An unexpected event happened the other day. I was at work and my wife and 3 daughters were at the house. It was a rather normal day; somewhat cold yet warm enough for a winter’s rainstorm. At this point in the day it hadn’t begun raining too much, however.

2:30 in the afternoon at our house is a time of waking up or still being awake after neglecting to nap. Activities of playing, coloring, or reading are in full swing as laughter and the occasional bickering fill the house. This day, however, would be different.

My wife called me to alert me to a man – probably in his early 20’s or so – walking around our house. We live on a corner making access to viewing our house quite easy. He walked around to the front of the house and then back to the side with enough pause to gain a keen eye to the details of our house. As my wife insistingly beckoned my girls away from our back door, he began to walk up alongside our van and towards the door. My wife had been watching him from within the house, far enough from the windows that he couldn’t see her or the girls.

Yet as he walked up towards the house, he stopped and left. I told my wife to get off the phone with me and to call 911. Was he trying to break in? Was he going to steal our belongings? Could my family have been in grave danger and I would hear the whole thing over the phone and 30 minutes away? Was he leaving our house for another one down the street?

My wife kept me on the phone as she walked back towards the rear door. As she got closer, she noticed a package and a note left from the delivery man. This man walking around the house wasn’t the delivery man; he seemed to be eyeing the package and inspecting for life in the house. “No one home,” he must have thought, making the package his. What made him stop short? I’ll never know.

A few cops showed up and scoped out our neighborhood. My brother came over to check out everything. All in all, nothing much had actually occurred and my wife handled things much, much better than I. She wasn’t worked up or over-anxious about the acts of that day.

I couldn’t shake the images running through my head. Not only of my wife and children in a precarious situation at best and life threatening at worst, but what I would have/could have done had I been home. Part of my worry was if this man would return and the fact I wouldn’t be home that night till 11pm. I was – in some ways – stuck being 30-45 minutes away from home and there might be danger lurking and waiting for opportunity to strike.

I arrived at home that night just before 11. And it was now that things changed. My wife was already in bed awaiting my return. The kids were in bed sleeping soundly. Seeing them safe made real what had been foggily imagined in my head. My wife and I caught up on the day as we reviewed what had taken place. “He walked around the house…the package…the girls…” Her calm lucidity eased my troubled mind and heart.

Then she changed the whole situation. “What if he was trying to help? What if he saw the package on the back porch getting wet and wondered if he could put it on the front porch?” See our back patio/porch doesn’t have anything keeping the rain at bay. The front does. What if he wasn’t trying to steal the package but keep it safe for us? From the inside of the house the package wasn’t visible; you could only see it from the outside. What if as he walked closer, he heard the girls or saw my wife and realized it would get picked up?

What if instead of a threat he was a help? What if he was offering us hospitality instead of hostility?

It was at this point where Henri Nouwen began to echo in me.

In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it…Our heart might desire to help others: to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners and offer a shelter to travelers; but meanwhile we have surrounded ourselves with a wall of fear and hostile feelings, instinctively avoiding people and places where we might be reminded of our good intentions. (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, p.69)

I had decidedly reacted in a manner where this man was the threat. The situation dictated this…right? The funny thing is that this Nouwen quote and the book it is taken from is something I’ve been teaching on for awhile now. In fact, this exact passage was something I honed in on specifically. I even wrote about it here.

These simple questions and wondering from my wife expose the reality of the situation: it is easier to teach than to live. Certainly, I have turned my hostility into hospitality towards others in different areas of my life, but as is the case with everything in life, I need to constantly repent and believe as I come to grips with my own blind spots. Learning to love isn’t a one time experience; it takes a life time.

Why did I automatically respond the way I did? What are my underlying assumptions? Why do they bend towards the worst and not something else? What do I actually value and believe? How do I honor the safety of my family without resorting to the violence I so easily assumed? What areas of my own life am I living out of fear and loneliness?

Questions like these force themselves to the forefront in moments like this. They teach me more about myself than I am sometimes willing to confront.

The more I ponder this whole situation the more I come to this conclusion: While he had the potential to steal our property, I had done worse: I had stolen his humanity. Even if it was only in my own head, this is what I had done. And this is what fear does. It keeps people at arm’s length and assumes the worst. It made me see him as a threat and not as a human being. In short, it keeps love caged up as my own possession for those whom I deem human, not those who actually are. In the end, it allows me to dehumanize myself.

It is so easy for me to assume the worst. And it is frightening.