Back when I was in high school, a girl – about a year younger than me – occasionally attended our youth group. What I remember of her primarily is that she was unfailingly sweet and very shy – or, as people at my church called it then, “backwards.” Friendly, certainly, but the sort of girl who would turn seven shades of red if you so much as said her name out loud, or just shake her head with quiet vehemence if you asked her whether or not she had anything to add.
I found out last night that, at 33, this sweet and shy girl had shot and killed her own mother.
My first instinct was to wonder if I remembered her properly at all. My mother affirmed it: “Yes, she was that shy girl from your youth group.” My second gut response, that my mother admitted thinking as well, was this: “I never would’ve imagined. I guess you never know.”
I’ve been thinking of that ever since. I don’t know. I don’t know if there were circumstances or motivations that turned the girl I knew into a person capable of taking another life decades down the road. I don’t know why she did it; I don’t know how she feels about it; I don’t know if the woman now would resemble anything of the girl I knew. I just don’t know.
And that isn’t rare. It’s a more general truth, too. You and I? We don’t know.
We don’t know who might be struggling with a mental illness. We might think we know, from context clues or behavior, and we might have heard a thing or two, but often we have no idea. We don’t know who’s suffering silently from verbal or physical abuse. We don’t know which women have struggled with infertility or miscarriages or long futile cycles of futility treatments. We don’t know who is adopted and who is not. We don’t know whose confident exterior masks crippling insecurity. We don’t know what heartbreaks play out behind closed doors. We don’t know whose seeming kindness hides vicious rage.
A while back, I read a local news announcement about a man who had committed suicide. The death had been labeled by the police as not suspicious; it was clear that he had taken his own life and that he had not been the victim of a homicide or natural death. He’d even left a suicide note. And yet the victim’s disbelieving family showed up on the news over and over again, demanding new investigations and asking for any tips that might prove there had been foul play. It was tragic; their repeated refrain was that “he was a happy guy with a lot to live for.” The person they felt they knew had been struggling with something they couldn’t even imagine, and they couldn’t make sense of the disconnect.
So much of the Bible emphasizes listening, avoiding careless or hasty speech, and being considerate of others. And so much of that is because we don’t know the hidden depths of each human we meet, nor can we understand their hopes and fears and dreams and struggles. I know that during trying times, I have a tendency to put on the “everything’s fine” face with everyone except my close family; people who have offered me kind words without knowing my circumstances in those moments meant the world to me. Similarly, I’ve been on the ends of words that stung when I know the speaker had no intention of insulting me with them; they simply didn’t understand what I was struggling with or facing.
“Show proper respect to everyone,” 1 Peter:17 implores. Philippians 2:4 encourages us to look out for each other’s interests. And Titus 3:2 offers up the holy grail of relating to others: “…to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. ”
All too often, our actions toward others are predicated on what we think we know about them, the clues we’ve gleaned from our history with them or even from knowledge gained through others. And while it’s true that in some cases we might have a greater knowledge of some than others – especially those we’re closest to – the Bible acknowledges that it’s best to treat everyone with kindness, with respect, and with courtesy.
Because we just don’t know.
And maybe we never will.