(Warning: this blog isn’t going to be about politics. Although my example comes from the halls of Congress.)
A few months ago, the presidents of three prestigious universities (Harvard, Penn, and MIT) were called before a congressional hearing and questioned about their school’s policies regarding student protest on the Israeli/Hamas conflict. When asked if calling for the elimination of the Jewish people was hate speech, they all said it depends on the context.
The dictionary tells us the meaning of the word context is the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.
Since then, two of the three presidents have been forced to resign, and the event put the idea of what context meant front and center in the public dialogue.
Coincidently, a book I read a few months ago warned me about reading Bible verses as stand-alone pieces of wisdom, warning us that we needed to check out the verses before and after each verse to give it context.
No doubt, the setting for an event, statement, or idea helps to give us context for what the speaker or writer meant when they used a particular word.
Because of these two items, I have recently tried to understand context more when analyzing things. For example, when I encounter a crabby person, I try to see if I can figure out why they might be crabby before I rush to judge their character.
Suppose I encounter a person who seems a bit more subdued than usual, In that case, I wonder if they have something going on in their life that might be causing their behavior to deviate from standard.
And as I have tried to be more conscious of this, I find myself more understanding and slower to judge. It has been paying off. When I give people the benefit of the doubt, I improve my mood. It’s refreshing.
Two weeks ago, at the airport, I walked up to the counter at my plane’s gate. I needed a tag to check my carry-on bag. When I arrived at the counter, the gate agent and flight attendant were having a heated conversation. I stood there and thought to myself that this flight attendant was going to be a real treat to deal with on our flight. She seemed unreasonable. I returned to my seat at the gate and told my wife, Sue, it was going to be a long flight with “that lady.”
Then we boarded the plane. Our flight encountered one issue after another. The flight attendant was the only person anybody on the plane could deal with. She was as pleasant and helpful as any flight attendant I have ever encountered.
The more context I got about her, the higher my regard for her. Fifteen hours later, when I finally got to my destination and had the chance to reflect on the dozens of people I dealt with on multiple airlines, the United flight attendant provided the best customer service of my day.
More context helped change my opinion.
(And when somebody sends me a single verse from the Bible, I try to find the verses around it to ensure I get the context I need.)