Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
June 2015 - Volume 15, No. 6
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Treating Others

Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German writer & statesman of a couple centuries ago, wrote,

"If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay that way, but if you treat him as if he were what he could be he will become what he could be."

It’s a simple sentence, and on the surface a simple idea. Yet it contains a great key to making the world a better place to live.

Us and Them

Central to the human ethic is our understanding and treatment of ‘others.’ We are by and large social beings. We are usually born into a family, which is part of a larger social order, extending to many levels - blood family, neighborhood, governmental units, national and heritage identities, race, religion, language, economics and history.  

And at each boundary we must process the question of ‘us and them.’

Our maps of the world, from the neighborhood to the global, consist of lines delineating territory, marking boundaries. A map without lines isn’t much of a useful map. Many of us recall those amazing NASA photos of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts - upon which we could see no national boundaries. And I remember the excitement of my children, growing up in that time, for that “one world” experience. But like the hopes of my children, the Apollo photos and their dreams have been forced again underground. It’s like the hopes that World War One would be “the war to end all wars.” Even our recent Arab Spring and Occupy movements, hoping to bridge boundaries of oppression, have had to ‘go underground.’ The world is not friendly to those who wish for a world based on friendship and a vision of unity.

We have instead allies. “Allies” are not always friends, they are rather those bound by agreement to “back me up when I ask for your help.” And it seems alliances these days are bought and sold like capital in a world of power brokers. Maybe that has always been the case.


It seems there’s little or no power in friendship. The history of power, both beneficial and oppressive, emerged from tribal and then political models. In recent times it became the godchild of economic models, and now the ugly child of the corporation model. And each seems to be built on the emergent ruthlessness of its ancestor. So what’s an individual soul to do!

Walk together, talk together - my own family heritage

My mother was born on July 9, 1914 at Gateshead, County Durham, England. She was Baptized on August 4 - the day Great Britain entered World War I. My Grandfather, a Congregational minister, gave her the single name “Irene” after the Greek Goddess of Peace. And for her entire life, she kept true to that gift.

On May 11, 1940, while yet another World War was breaking out in Europe, and now living in Chicago, she married my father, an ardent peace activist through the 1930’s, soon to become a Methodist minister.

AFS - From war ambulance to student exchange

All of this leads to my parents discovery in the mid-1950’s of the American Field Service. This volunteer (mostly American) organization formed in the battle fields of France as the American Ambulance Field Service in 1914, then absorbed by the American Army in 1917.

Since that time, The AFS has dedicated itself to promote across-border understanding to promote peace, and in memory of those who died while serving in the WW1 ambulance service. It sponsors student exchange from numerous countries (now over 50) to and from the US.

Through AFS I myself was chosen at age 17 for a Summer exchange to live with a German family - as well as having one of the most delightful fellows I’ve ever met live with us as a ‘brother’ through my own high school senior year.

I recall how frequently my mother, in promoting the AFS to our part of Iowa, would quote their motto:  

“Walk together, talk together, O ye peoples of the earth; then and only then shall ye have peace.”  

[I still keep all the speech notes pages from that small leather ringbinder she always had with her as an AFS ambassador.]

An Answer

So what’s an individual to do, living in a culture and country so much at war with itself, its own people, as well as against so many others around the world?

We start talking to each other. We start walking with each other. We begin treating each other, not so much as how they may come across in each moment, but what we can begin to see is the best of themselves. It can become a habit, even a way of life. And it begins to spread.

It’s one of the secrets of my work (as is true of so many in the counseling and psychotherapy community).

Sometimes treating people well can mean we creatively ‘hallucinate.’ Most successful relationships sometimes involve responding to each other not with our immediate feelings, but with a trained ‘grace’ that is our gift to each other.

Both / And

An example:

When working with a couple, I’ll sometimes say to the woman, “When he (the man) wakes up in the morning and looks over at you, and tells you you’re beautiful, you know he’s obviously hallucinating.” She’ll always laugh in agreement.

But I’ll continue, “Also, when he wakes up in the morning and looks over at you and tells you you’re beautiful, he’s telling you the absolute truth.”

Often the man will smile slightly in self-knowledge, and the woman, often speechless, can know she lives in grace.

An old priest mentor of mine, in reflecting after many a difficult encounter, would remind me “Given what they’ve got to work with, they’re doing the best they can.” That’s how he loved them - and everyone he met, knew he loved them. That was his secret - he had mastered that (sometimes very difficult) gift. 

It seems unnatural at times for us to see each other according to what each can better become. And it’s often our immediate family who may test us the most.

Many find purpose for life in the simple work of making the place a little better than when we arrived. And we hope to raise our children toward the same direction. It’s said that even God found a way by which to love each and every one of us (most of you know the story) - in a sense to ‘hallucinate’ each one of us as fullworthy of Him.  

And when we come to a ‘boundary’ marker, no matter what it’s intended purpose, we gather up a little bit of extra grace, and hallucinate each side better. I call it “soul training.” It’s also called “friendship.” It’s also called “grace.” It’s also called “love.” Sometimes it’s just good strategy.  

When it “doesn’t work.”

There are times we have to let it go - because it just doesn’t seem to work. This kind of world-building doesn’t mean necessarily being nice to others. There are times we have to set up strong boundaries ourselves, for our own sake as well as the other.  

We often have to ‘contain’ the behavior of someone “as they are.” Sometimes we have to contain even the best of what another could become. 

As we’re reminded these days, the ‘protect and serve’ mandate of our police collapses only when the ‘other’ is demeaned by their own treatment of them.  

I used to comment about the Army’s promo of a few years ago “Be all you can be.” I respond that much mental health work is designed to prevent just that very possibility.

At first view, the need to “regulate” others seems the opposite of Goethe’s statement. But I sense the frequent need to contain another can be in order to preserve the best the other can become. That’s also part of the program of child-raising, as well as public order. We regulate a world in order that we can improve it. It’s a matter of each of us knowing how to sense and then negotiate that balance.

At times we have to let go as if in failure. We must remember it’s not up to us to have to succeed. This becomes a community effort, we add what best we can. And we’ll often grieve our losses.

It still comes around to me that Goethe has the secret. It’s not as easy as it sounds. He doesn’t say it’s easy. And strangely he doesn’t have us judged by it. Note that.

And sometimes when we are able to live this way, the world may notice and even respond to us with a “thank you.” We can smile slightly in self-knowledge, then whisper into the wind a word of gratitude to those who have done the same for us.   

Pay attention

Comments (2)

  • <3

    Thanks for the little bit of history reminder of my grandparents! And, the rest of the article is nice, too. :-)

    — Heather, 6/1/2015
  • Decency and Civility

    I think it is the same thing. I call it “acting as if...” and proceed to behave as if it were true. It’s the belief that makes it work.

    — Donna, 6/2/2015

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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