You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
On Presidents’ Day, I’m remembering the first book I ever read about Abraham Lincoln. I was a first-grader assigned to read a biography about a hero, and then write a report on it.
The cover showed an awkward-looking boy in ill-fitting overalls. He was carrying an axe over one shoulder and a tied-up stack of books over the other.
I couldn’t believe this gangly boy would one day be the stately, top-hatted Lincoln familiar to all. While I wasn’t exactly “judging a book by its cover,” I’d only perceived Lincoln as a fully realized adult – and as a dignified president. I hadn’t focused on his life’s formative experiences.
We might not think about Lincoln’s many disadvantages, setbacks and tragedies, such as his limited early education, his prior electoral defeats, the death of his 11-year-old son, and his battle with depression.
Similarly, we often judge people based upon their present status. But everyone has a personal history that led them to where they are today.
Many people with fully developed cognitive skills overlook this. We judge a person based upon the way that person “presents” at this moment. Indeed, entire systems of care have done this for centuries.
We set forth to treat people struggling with psychiatric challenges, with homelessness, with a criminal history, or with suicidal thoughts. But we so often don’t take into account the experiences that had brought that person here before us.
We zero in on the person’s shortcomings and failures. We start to think that their present travails fully define their character.
This outlook lowers our expectations for their future – and can perpetuate care systems that reinforce the cycle of adverse experiences people face.
There’s a different way.
If we view individuals as the sum of their past experiences, if we take time to “read the pages of their book,” we may discover a history of neglect, loss, or other trauma that had never been properly worked through.
This approach changes the way we “treat” that person. By focusing on healing from past trauma, and by harboring genuine hope for the future, we can move beyond the constraints of the moment. We can help people write a promising, new chapter in their life stories.
There was much more to Lincoln than the top hat covering his head. And when it comes to understanding someone’s life story, we should dig deeper – and not just “judge a book by its cover.”