Last week was my birthday. I turned 31 on Thursday and, even though we didn’t celebrate much on the day itself because I have late home visits on Thursdays, your mom made a fantastic dinner on Wednesday night and we celebrated some more over the weekend. You got me a card, made me a sign that said “Happy Birthday Daddy” and gave me a collage of photos of the two of us, all of which helped to brighten up what was otherwise a fairly gloomy day.1 So I wanted to say thanks for that.
This letter is not going to be a contemplation of my mortality or of time slipping away from me. I’m getting older, but I’m not old, no matter what your uncles and certain other friends of mine try to tell me. Instead, I wanted to write to you about perspective. I’ve written about this in the past, but there was something that happened that made me want to bring it up again. This post will be different, I promise.
Someone very close to me reached out to me last week because she was having a rough time. She needed someone to talk to about some things she’s dealing with in her life and she chose me. We texted back and forth for a while as I did my best to answer her questions and gave her some small pieces of advice but it was the start of the conversation that really stuck with me. She opened up by asking me how I viewed her and what I thought of some of the decisions she has made during her life. This wasn’t like that friend of mine I mentioned in the other post, who was looking to me for advice about how to prepare for the birth of his first child. This wasn’t someone picking my brain. This was someone who was in real pain and was looking for help and she had essentially just asked what I thought of her. I told her that everyone faces adversity at some point or another in their lives and that people deal with those challenges as best they can. I told her that everyone makes mistakes and that the key is how people learn from those mistakes.
Most of all, I told her it’s not my place to judge her.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from being a social worker is that there’s almost always more to the story. It’s very rare that you have all the information. Clients get referred to me because they’re demonstrating negative behaviors like physical aggression or they’re experiencing suicidal ideations or they’re refusing to comply with certain recommendations. These behaviors get them in the door, but it’s not until later that I find out the child’s family is struggling financially, which is why they don’t have access to the same resources as the child’s classmates. Or the child was adopted and is experiencing a crisis of identity. Or the worst, that the child was abused and that’s why their behavior is deteriorating. But no matter what the issues are, I know I can’t make appropriate recommendations or develop treatment plans until I know the whole story.
The same goes for my relationships with my friends. I don’t necessarily have to agree with the decisions people make but I do have to accept that I may not have all the information that led them to their decisions in the first place. You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”2 I work very hard to avoid judging people based on their decisions and I hope that you will too. I heard somewhere that every person you will ever come across is struggling with some sort of crisis that you have no idea about and I’ve tried to keep that concept in mind whenever I meet someone new. I have no doubt that you’re going to grow up to be empathic, trustworthy and dependable. I’m sure your friends are going to love you and that you’re going to be a role model for them and for the rest of your peers as you get older. I just know that I work very hard to keep an open mind about people and to give others the benefit of the doubt whenever I can.
I hope that you will too.
1. It was chilly and cloudy and I had a couple of crises at work. Not the best birthday-day, but the other stuff really helped. Also, your mom helped you out with the card and the sign and the collage. You’re smart, but not quite good enough to write out “Happy Birthday Daddy” without help.↩
2. Jack Handey takes this a step further by adding, “That way, when you do judge them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” I’m paraphrasing, as the original wording is “criticize” instead of “judge,” but it still fits.↩