On the Face of Things by George Merrill


Appearances deceive!

When I read Jesus’s words, “Judge not,” I think to myself, “You’re putting me on, right? Not judge? It’s impossible. Give me a break!”

Well, it is and isn’t impossible. With first judgments, the ones we typically make on the face of things, I’d say it’s impossible. Knee jerk judgments behave like reflexes; you can rarely stop them any more than you can get a fit of sneezing to end. Getting at the heart of what makes up our judgments is another matter. We have control over that. It requires some practice and being better informed on how we’re put together psychologically and spiritually. “Know thyself” is our most valuable asset. Being informed, we’re less likely to be suckered into attaching ourselves to snap judgments that are typically suspect.

I was in the grocery store not long go. The line was long. Shoppers were getting restless. The man directly in the front of me was huge man with a considerably protuberant belly – a beer belly I’d say. His hair was long and unruly. He wore on a tank top and under each arm he held two large cartons of beer. His arms and shoulders were covered with tattoos – large hearts pierced by arrows, a dragon, an iron cross, a nude woman and a couple of American flags.

There were about five people waiting as an elderly man by the checkout lady fumbled in his wallet for a check. I was the third in line, just behind the huge man.

The elderly man found the check but then couldn’t find a pen. Then he sought for his glasses all of which was consuming a considerable time. I could see ripples of irritation forming along the line: a few people turned around and looked at the person behind them. That person in turn rolled their eyes and sighed conspiratorially, acknowledging what a pain it was to be stuck in line like this for just one patron.

The huge man was right behind the flustered shopper. He put down his two cartons of beer and I watched as he leaned forward to speak to the unfortunate customer. I heard him say: “Hey Buddy, let me fill out the check for you and all you have to do is sign it.”
The man, subdued but grateful, handed him the check and the huge man filled it out and returned it.

It was a risky intervention: it could easily have soured and raised suspicions of the huge man’s efforts to help. The offer was unusual but bold and creative, and I would never have suspected it of him. I had no idea that a Good Samaritan might look like a biker from Hells’ Angles. Nothing is quite as it seems on the face of things. Yet so many judgments are a result of our perception of appearances. Racial profiling and gender discrimination are cases in point.

In a New York Times on June 23rd, a picture of a psychologist appeared in an editorial. The article was called “The Torturers Speak.” Dr. James Mitchell is one of two psychologists who contracted, for eighty one million dollars, to design, oversee and help carry out the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees after 9/11. He and another psychologist are being sued.

Dr. Mitchell is handsome, a well-dressed, middle-aged man with a distinguished beard. He’s pictured holding his glasses in his hand, like professors, politicians and preachers do as they speak. You’d take him for a doctor or lawyer or any professional. If you were to meet him for the first time my guess is he’d inspire confidence with the dignified presence he commands. Admittedly, in the picture he looks angry but I don’t know why.

The enhanced interrogation techniques were horrific enough that Jose Rodriguez, a top CIA official, destroyed the videotapes of the techniques, which he described as “ugly visuals.” One detainee after eighty-three “enhanced interrogations was reduced to hysterical pleading and unable to communicate at all with his tormentors.” His dignity was gone, his humanity violated.

Both Mitchel and his colleague claimed that they did not “want to continue what they were doing.” Intelligence officials, however, “kept telling [us] every day a nuclear bomb would be exploded in the United States and it would be my fault if I didn’t continue.”

My knee jerk reaction to the editorial was to feel revulsion and yet it is difficult to make judgments when all the information and the many pressures on all parties are not fully recognized. Still, the issue remains; when the going gets tough, what are the values we hold most dear that will guide us?

The mentality that this interrogation regimen reflects is undeniable: it really doesn’t matter how you play the game. Winning is all there is. Winning, a form of power is very seductive.

There’s another scary piece in the story that troubles me. The capacity that apparently well educated and informed professionals, people like me – holding degrees in the humane studies like psychology – are able to sufficiently distance themselves from their own humanity that eighty-one thousand dollars would be worth all the inhumane suffering that their plan would inflict. That demonic piece of our human condition –and the potential for that lives in all of us – surfaces again and again whether in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in the inhumane strategies of Issis or the detailed planning in the Final Solution the Nazis launched. These were not crimes of passion, which makes them all the more chilling. The murder and torture were coolly calculated with clinical precision, schemes devised and executed as manageable bureaucratic policies, which, through some torturous casuistry, legitimized them.

Only God can judge and for good reasons. He’s the only one who has the complete overview, who knows all the facts. In the meantime, we are charged to be discerning while holding firmly to the values that dignify our humanity.

It takes practiced eye not to be fooled by appearances.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.





Letters to Editor

  1. Kristen Greenaway says:

    George, you mention first in your piece (excellent, as always) that Mitchell [and Bruce Jesson] received $81M for their efforts, but later you write $81k. I suspect that for $81M, they did indeed find it easy “to sufficiently distance themselves from their own humanity,” and perhaps there indeed lies the root of the evil.

Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article

We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.