I’m a college professor, so I assign essays. And my college students are…well, college students, so they complain when I assign essays. It’s the collegiate circle of life.
And yet one complaint bothers me more than any other. It’s the complaint that always crops up when I assign an essay – some as short as three pages, some as long as eight – and it always happens right after I make the assignment. Put-upon sighs drift into the air. Students shoot each other pained glances. And inevitably one brave soul gives a sheepish smile and articulates what everyone else is thinking: “Man, that’s a long essay. Like, that’s too much writing to ask us to do!”
It isn’t. I know it isn’t because my department says it isn’t; they determine the general desired length of student writing. But I also know it isn’t because I know what a long paper is. In graduate school my seminar courses demanded elaborate twenty-to-forty page papers that made up the sum total of my entire grade for the course. During the written exam for my Ph.D., taken over a span of 48 hours, I produced a fifty-page essay. And for my dissertation I wrote literally hundreds of pages! Compared to that a six-page paper is a dream. A six-page paper is nothing.
But my students lack experience, and because they lack experience, they lack perspective. Eight pages seems long to them because it’s close to the longest thing most of them have ever written. They lack the point of view that writing twenty or thirty pages, or even books, might give them. And so although I explain to them that their perspective is skewed, and I assure them that eight pages is really not asking much, I also take care – being aware of their lack of experience – to understand why it might be difficult for them or why it might seem overwhelming.
It’s a lesson I try to apply to my Christian walk as well. I try to remember that I don’t share others’ experiences, and so their perspective might be very different from mine. What seems insignificant to me might be very significant to them; what seems fundamental to my life might not matter much to theirs. Job has this experience when he confronts God directly about his trials and his suffering. Beleaguered on earth and left desolate by his hardships, Job feels he’s justified in complaining and demanding an accounting from a God who is supposed to love the righteous. But God shows up in chapter 38 and, in a thunderous monologue, corrects Job’s perspective and reveals that, because Job lacks God’s understanding and God’s experience, he isn’t viewing the matter accurately.
The ability to shift away from our own perspective is important when it comes to showing love to others. There are times when I simply don’t understand people: why they do what they do, why they arrange their priorities like they do, why they’re concerned about something that seems insignificant to me. I suspect most of us have that problem from time to time, and it can challenge our ability to show compassion. Yet if we take just a moment to reorient our view- to consider other people’s responses in the light of their experiences, and to align our perspective with God’s perspective – we can reach out in love and kindness.
A little understanding goes along way.