I am convinced my son is single-handedly responsible for a decline in Food Lion’s sales from approximately 2014–2016. Maybe it was the light and noise from the scanner, or maybe it was typical grocery store induced rage, but without fail he screamed bloody murder the whole five minutes it took to check out. Every time. For two years. Bloody murder.
Pre-Hellish-Checkout-Me had a plan about how to conduct myself in such situations. It involved firm talks, a trademark no-nonsense mom look, and an unwavering commitment to organic veggies.
In reality this was my strategy: Abort! Abort! Abort!
Time and time again I scrambled to signal the perfect amount of strictness and compassion, not so much for Declan’s sake but for the many eyes that were invariably glued to the toddler screaming about dish soap. The absurdity of the situation didn’t hit me fully until I caught myself earnestly pleading with my child, unsure if my voice came out a whisper or a yell: “And how do you think that made the eggs feel?!”
Precisely because we will only ever have our own experiences, our mandate toward charity compels us to imaginatively occupy the perspectives of others.I like to think BBC Dad and I have lightning-quick parental reflexes in common. If you don’t know who I mean by BBC Dad, I’m referring to Robert Kelly, and you can experience his parental glory here. The video was captured last Friday, when Kelly’s daughter waited until her old man was in the middle of a live interview with the BBC to saunter into his office with a swagger well beyond her years.
Unfortunately for Kelly, he’d opted to use Skype for the interview, and his daughter was in plain view of the camera. I’m willing to bet that “push her back blindly and pretend none of this is happening” was not the response BBC Dad would have produced for the essay portion of his Parenting 101 exam. Nonetheless, there he was, on national television stiff-arming his toddler. By the time his second, younger child barrels into the room—walker and all—I was done. I didn’t need more. But because we serve a gracious God, Kelly’s frazzled wife swoops in, herding her children out of the room like a rock star.
There were so many spectacular parts of this video, but the thing that made it an internet sensation was its absolute relatability. How many times have I, like countless other parents, been interrupted by my son in the most spectacularly embarrassing fashion possible? (Spoiler alert: a lot. And while I cannot see the future, the smart money is on this being an ongoing trend.) BBC Dad started that interview as an expert on Korean politics, but he ended it as Every Parent Ever.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the inevitable internet backlash to come rolling in. The video, while hilarious, is distinctly discomforting, and while half the internet laughed the awkwardness off, the other half seemed deeply unsettled by it—some pointing to it as a relic of patriarchy and others going as far as to level claims of abuse.
The whole thing is cringeworthy, and it’s funny only in the same sense that Michael Scott from The Office is funny—conjuring up an uncomfortable mix of sympathy, horror, and absurdity. Much like The Office, this moment violated nearly all of the social expectations we hold for Western parenting. Kelly clearly panicked. He did not demonstrate a jovial patience we believe parents do (and should) have for their children. His expression and actions instead exuded a nervous annoyance. When you didn’t think the moment could get worse, it did, ultimately manifesting in the unfortunate arm block.
It was the kind of moment every parent I know has experienced—the kind you don’t post about on Facebook, the kind we like to wipe from memory and let die in obscurity. Unfortunately for Kelly, his was captured on video, and that video has multiplied his shame exponentially. It has also left him vulnerable to the harsh judgment of the internet.
But while I understand feeling uncomfortable about the clip, I do not believe we should grant credence to claims of abuse—claims formed on the behavior exhibited in a less than two-minute viral video. Could Kelly’s quiet annoyance be symptomatic of a seething rage? Sure, I suppose. However, it could just as easily be the kind of panic that comes from your daughter interrupting a live televised interview. Could his wife’s urgency be the result of habitual abuse? Maybe. It could also be the reaction of a mother who lost track of her kids for two minutes at an inconvenient time.
The bottom line is that we cannot feasibly know one way or the other what the behavior demonstrated in this video points to. Retrospect and an additional interview with the family has perhaps granted us more clarity, but before that we had only a minute and a half of panicked reactions. While we can surely filter those reactions through the lenses of our own experiences, that does not make the conclusions we arrive at necessarily valid.
We have an inborn tendency to interpret the world through our own experiences—it’s something we all do, and, to an extent, it’s natural. It’s also by definition insufficient—an incomplete way in which to interpret the world. My experiences are limited, and the conclusions I draw based on them are likewise limited.
For every similarity I recognize between myself and others, there are countless differences I can easily overlook, making the calculus of my judgment about their actions imprecise. For example, I may be a parent, but I have never been invited onto the BBC to speak about South Korean politics, making it pretty difficult to predict how I might react in Kelly’s situation. However, because I will only ever have my experiences, I am prone to fall back on them regardless.
This human tendency is both good and bad for community. It creates a strong, unifying bond among people with shared experiences, but it also fosters skepticism of differences. An over-reliance on my own experiences has caused me to sin against my neighbors. I have dismissed and invalidated people of color who have suffered racism because, as a middle class white woman, I could not perceive the truth in their experiences. I have missed integral information about the world—I have alienated my neighbors and perpetuated a variety of unjust biases because I failed to contextualize my experiences with other pertinent truths, or even to be epistemically humble enough to acknowledge my limitations.
I also know what it’s like to be unfairly invalidated and dismissed. I have endured the judging glances of fellow parents who can neither see my son’s autism nor understand that it creates a different experience from the ones they may be used to. Maybe that’s why I sympathize with BBC Dad—because I know what it’s like to be weighed as a parent on little more than someone else’s theoretical idea of what they’d do in a similar situation. More broadly, though, I know our tendency to over-prioritize the validity of our own experiences makes for not only deeply flawed communities, but also gaping blind spots in our worldviews.
Precisely because we will only ever have our own experiences, our mandate toward charity compels us to imaginatively occupy the perspectives of others. Sometimes this means descending privileged positions and proactively enacting empathy. As Alan Jacobs puts it in A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love: “[G]enuine love of others is kenotic in a particular sense of that word: Genuine love of others requires an emptying out of one’s own self and a consequent refilling of the emptied consciousness with attention to the Other.”
This is both the inherent beauty and challenge of fellowship—the inability to live someone else’s experience requires tuning our ears to the voices of others. This requires setting aside our experiences to welcome those of others, yes, but it also is just an honest assessment of who we are.
I am reminded of the conclusion of Arrival—of how earth narrowly avoids intergalactic warfare by humbly, begrudgingly acknowledging that each country’s individual experience does not constitute a complete, reliable picture of reality. We likewise should humbly acknowledge that our own experiences are incomplete and that without fairly perceiving the narratives of others—BBC Dad’s story included—we will certainly miss pertinent, absolute truths about God’s people.