Several months ago I spoke at a Relief Society conference at which more than 300 women were in attendance. The Young Women had also been invited to this event, and I noticed a number of teenage girls in the audience. Early in my talk I heard the sound of whispering at my extreme left. Looking in that direction, I saw three attractive young women talking quietly to one another.
Immediately I felt a little resentful. I am used to audiences giving me their full attention, and I am not very tolerant of people working against what a speaker is trying to do. However, I have spoken to enough young groups to know the gigantic challenge it is to keep them with you, to keep their eyes riveted on the speaker, their hands out of their purses or away from combing each other’s hair, to keep them from trying on each other’s shoes or from poking each other and giggling.
Yet I believe strongly that audiences, even young ones, have an obligation to give complete courtesy to a speaker, to listen without causing distraction. My usual course of action, when a person in the audience continues to cause a disturbance, is to stop speaking, look at the offender and smile until I am noticed and the disturber is sheepishly brought back into line. Then I continue speaking. This generally works.
I glanced occasionally at the three girls on the front row as they continued to whisper to one another, but they did not notice my glances. My resentment built. Where were their mothers, anyway? Why did they come if they didn’t want to hear what I had to say? Why do the leaders force young people to go to things they don’t want to go to and aren’t prepared to appreciate? How dare they talk through my incredibly marvelous and moving presentation when everybody else in the hall was clearly spellbound?
I was reading “The Steward,” my favorite poem to read aloud, and the quiet buzz continued. Several times I looked at them and they looked back and then went on with their quiet conversation, the three of them leaning in together. At the end of the poem I closed the book and looked directly at them. I smiled. They smiled back. And giggled. I smiled at them until they stopped giggling and looked at me without a sound. I then continued my talk.
Their conversation was not totally squelched, however. It was quieter, but every once in a while I noticed them leaning in to one another and whispering. I gave up and finished out the talk, wishing that whoever had made them come had just let them be and wishing that young people these days placed a higher value on courtesy.
After the talk, as we were having refreshments in the cultural hall, a woman came up to me and shook my hand. “Sister Pearson,” she said, “I hope those girls didn’t disturb you too much. Let me tell you about them. They’ve only been in the country a week. They came from Lebanon, and they just missed the massacre [September 16–17, 1982] by eight hours. They probably would have been killed, but somehow they were taken out of the country and arrived here. Our ward has sort of adopted them. We wanted to have them come tonight in spite of the fact that they don’t speak English very well. They were sitting there trying to help one another figure out what you were saying.”
A tremor ran through my consciousness, shattering a perception and letting me see behind judgment into reality. I no longer wanted to take the girls and shake them by the shoulders. I wanted to take them in my arms and tell them how glad I was that they had come. Suddenly I knew their secret, and it changed everything.
There must be many reasons why we have been asked to judge not. One is that we might not be judged. Another, I’m sure, is that seldom—so seldom—do we really see the true picture. We look at situations, at people, and see the topmost layer, an oversimplified, often deceiving layer. And we judge. But then we learn something. The plot thickens. A new piece of information changes everything. And we see with new eyes.
I can remember many occasions when my perception has crumbled and a glimpse inside has wiped away judgment. During my college years I looked at a fellow student, whom I will call Roy, in amazement. Where did he get such a gigantic ego? His need to be recognized and praised was never ending. Every conversation he had with anyone always centered on his recent triumphs and the projects he was now involved in that would ensure his fame. He was underappreciated and let everyone know it. His name became a joke. We had him pegged as an obnoxious egomaniac who blew his own horn from morning until night.
One day I learned that one of my friends knew his family. She began to tell me some things. “Roy’s father was an alcoholic. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Oh, yes. He made their life just miserable. He was a crazy man. Once, when Roy was about five, he walked in the kitchen and saw his father attempting to kill his mother. It was a terrible scene and Roy was there to watch it all.”
The tremor was instant. All my perceptions, all my judgment shattered, and I saw past the facade into the reality. I saw past the obnoxious adult to the traumatized little boy that I wanted to take in my arms and comfort. I never looked at Roy the same again. I knew his secret, one of his secrets, and I understood.
Last year we had a serious problem regarding a great many obscene phone calls. I thought the caller would lose interest, but he didn’t. Upon inquiring around the neighborhood I learned that a number of other women were receiving the same calls. I sleuthed out the situation and discovered that it was a teenage boy up the street. I called him by name on the phone, telling him that was the last call he was going to make. By this time, of course, my feelings against this person were running very high. We had taken to calling him “The Jerk,” and in my mind he was clearly and simply one of the nuisances like mosquitoes that had no right to exist but did anyway.
After a long debate with myself, I went to talk to his mother. It was obvious that he needed help, and it would not be possible for him to get it unless his parents understood. I told the boy’s mother the whole story. She was surprised but took it very well and was very grateful to me for coming to her.
“I’ve been concerned about Jack for a long time,” she said. “He’s under such tremendous pressure from his father. He’s not allowed to have even a minute of free time, it seems. On the weekends he has these long, long lists of chores to do, and they’re never quite done well enough. ‘You missed a spot in the hedge, Jack,’ his father says, or ‘You didn’t get all the weeds.’ It seems like his responsibilities never end. Last weekend his father made him type a letter over four times, finding something new wrong each time. If Jack isn’t home when his dad comes in, he’ll say, ‘Where’s Jack? Is he doing his homework?’ And if he’s out playing in the neighborhood, he’ll go whistle for him. Sometimes when Jack will come in he’ll ask, ‘Is Dad here?’ and I know he’s really asking, ‘Am I going to have to do something?’ If his dad isn’t here, he’ll relax a little bit. But it doesn’t last. Jack has developed a twitch. And I know all this pressure has something to do with the phone calls.”
Again the tremor. Again the crack in the first perception, allowing me to see inside. I knew Jack’s secret, at least a little bit about the ache inside that moved him to do sad, sad things. And I wanted to help him, encourage him, instead of slapping him like a mosquito. Maybe he deserved to live after all.
It always helps you understand others better to learn the reasons behind their behavior. It helped in dealing with a strange school teacher to learn that his wife had been killed in a car accident as they left the wedding to go on their honeymoon. It helped in understanding my father who could not express affection to learn that his father couldn’t either. And it helps as I look at every person I meet and tend to judge to say to myself, “If I knew your secret, I would understand.” But I don’t really have to know their secrets. Privacy should be respected. It is enough to know that if I did know, I would feel differently.
No one should whisper during talks. No one should demand that everyone’s attention go to feed his own ego. No one should make obscene phone calls. But when offenses occur, it helps to look past the surface and try to see what might be underneath. When you know someone’s secret, it’s easier not to judge.