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First impressions – strange and dangerous!

December 16, 2017

First impressions are strange things. I know that I need to look deeper than a person’s appearance but, have you noticed just how hard it is to actually do that? I see someone in a smart suit, and think, “respectable”. When all a smart suit means is that they have the money to buy a smart suit, and perhaps a job that demands it. They could be a liar and a fraud, but I’ve stupidly begun to trust them, just because of their choice of clothes. I see a man in a warm jacket and scarf walking a Labrador dog, and I think, “family man”. But that is exactly how some sexual predators have disguised themselves. There again, he probably is a family man. But that again says nothing about the sort of person that he is.

I see a man slurring his speech and walking unsteadily, and my first impression is, “drunk”. But I don’t know that he hasn’t had a stroke. Even if he is drunk, who am I to judge. Being drunk doesn’t make him a bad person; just drunk!

I have found that my desire to make a first impression can lead me astray so easily. I need again and again to force myself to stop and make a real evaluation of the person in front of me. That includes the thought, do I even know enough to evaluate anyway?

I used to rain with someone who was covered with tattoos. He could have been off putting but he was a great person, well worth getting to know. Once you took the time to really look, his tattoos were impressive too. Before I met him he used to make his impression even more extreme. He used to have brightly-coloured ‘mohican’ hair. It was deliberate on his part, to weed out the ‘judgemental idiots’ who he didn’t want to know anyway. He figured that if someone treated him as a human being, however he looked, then they were worth taking the time to speak with and get to know. If they judged him by his appearance, then they were not worth wasting time with anyway.

This idea of first impressions really worries me. It worries me because it can so easily make me into a judgemental idiot, and that is putting it kindly. Jesus seems to have been free of this worrying human trait. He saw through the irreligious surface of tax collectors and prostitutes, to love the human being within (see Mark 2.14). He saw through the respectability of so many of the religious leaders, and called them out for their hypocrisy (see Matthew 23.33). Yet, Jesus didn’t say all prostitutes were good people; neither did he say that all of the religious leaders were bad. He praised, where praise was due (see Mark 12.34).

I want desperately to be more like Jesus, but the more I look into first impressions the more worried I get. I looked up first impressions and found that we human beings make up our mind about someone incredibly quickly. I had heard that it was within 1 minute of meeting some that we make up our mind about them. Then I read that it was only 30 seconds, then 2 seconds, then only 1 second. Then I read of recent research that indicates that we make an almost instant impression of someone (see How Many Seconds to a First Impression?). Not so much, “Love at first sight”, but more, “Judge at first sight”.

That is truly scary. It tells me just how hard my task is going to be. It reminds me why it is so hard to overcome prejudice, and judgemental attitudes, in myself, and in the world around me. I now feel almost helpless. Then I stop wallowing in my helplessness and bring it to Jesus, in prayer. I ask for the Spirit to help me. I then resolve to do my best to stop and review every first impression that I make. That way I am taking some responsibility for my failings, while still calling on God to help when my frail humanity fails me.

I pray that I might have the insight of Jesus Christ. I pray that I may steadily stop assessing someone on the basis of their looks, or their religion, their sex, or sexual orientation, their age, beauty, or any other superficial criteria. I pray that I will be able to have the patience to wait and to get to know a person before considering who they are. That is phase one. I then pray that I can learn to love them, whatever my human judgement says.

I pray not for a little. I pray for something that is way beyond my ability. I pray for nothing less than the mind of Christ here and now. I know I’ll fail, again and again, but I know that there is no other goal worth striving for. Maybe, I should pray not that I stop making first impressions, but that my first impressions, will be first impressions of love. Maybe, I’m trying to run before I can walk.

Whatever else, I need to keep reminding myself that first impressions are dangerous, and good or bad, I need to challenge them every time.

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