Alongsider Briefings: Reflections of a Life Lived with God

Four Ways to Unflatten People


My son gave me President Obama’s recent book The Promised Land for Christmas. I asked for the book out of curiosity. I wanted to know, “What’s the story behind the man?”

I was pleasantly surprised. I discovered a leader who was honest, principled, and a good father and husband. While I disagreed with some of his policies and political assumptions, he was operating from a patriotic desire. I concluded that he was neither the savior that the liberals hoped for nor the devil-in-disguise of conservatives.

I came away with a simple principle. It’s easy to “flatten” people, particularly those in politics and the public eye. Both political sides condense someone to a caricature that you either love or hate. Behind this flattened narrative stands a rich human being who is bigger than a projected image. Like God, people cannot easily fit into a box of our making.

My graduate school philosophy professor referred to people having a “thin” or a “thick” description. A thin description focuses on one dimension of a person’s life. A thick description takes into account the total person.

It’s easy for me to make people “thin” by flattening them out according to political ideologies, theological positions, or lifestyle choices. It’s more convenient to relate to a “category” or “label” than a rich, complex, “thick” person. I can tell when I’ve flattened someone when I begin assigning them names — far-right, progressive, patriot, Calvinistic, pro-choice, millennial.

Flattening people reduces them to caricatures of their true selves, pushing out the qualities and inconsistencies of character and beliefs that makes them a whole person. I quickly form opinions of people placing them into categories that deny the wholeness of a person. I’m glad that the Lord doesn’t flatten me out.

Our Lord follows a simple principle when surveying the landscape of people. When Israel was searching for a new king, God offers this assessment:

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

1 Samuel 16:7

“Heart” in the Scriptures is more than a reference to our physical organ or our emotional natures. The heart is the core depository of our passions, our inner secrets, and our hidden desires; a complex mixture of dreams, values, and beliefs that form a compass to our lives. It’s in our hearts that life takes place.

When the Lord looks at our hearts, he’s looking at our total person. He doesn’t flatten us according to size, good looks, or Enneagram number. He looks at the total person and so should I. We call this “getting to the heart” of a person. It’s reflected in the question,“What’s on your heart?” The heart is where life happens and it’s often a pretty complex picture. Peering into one’s heart helps keeps me from flattening people.

What keeps me from flattening others? Here are four ways to unflatten people.

  • People are more than they appear. I must work at getting to know the “back story” of a person’s life — the story of a person’s past and the present that shapes who they are as individuals. This back story often hides behind one’s present demeanor.
  • Remove racial or ethnic stereotypes. A simple definition of racism is attributing the qualities of one person to generalize how an entire race or culture behaves. It’s easy to put people in the box of a racial or ethnic stereotype and treat them accordingly. Get to know the person that supersedes one’s race or nationality.
  • Don’t flatten yourself. You’re more than the job you hold, the service you perform, or your role as a spouse or parent. We are complex, interesting, and often uneasy to categorize once we’re known. One of my goals in life is to be more interesting, not less, as people get to know me. For example, did you know I’m an amateur rock and roll cultural historian?
  • Be curious about another’s heart. Remember, the Lord doesn’t judge by our appearance but looks at the heart — the motivations and desires that drive us as people. Learn to ask questions that unlock someone’s heart. For example, no matter how long you’ve been married, what new things are you learning about your spouse? Has the routine of living together robbed the wonder of curiosity?

When we come alongside people as friends, disciplemakers, or leaders, let’s not flatten them out. Let’s explore the “thick” side of people, peering into and understanding their hearts. We will discover that people are rich and varied not a thin persona of political assumptions, theological beliefs, or lifestyle preferences.

One Comment

  1. Thank you, Bill, for this insightful article. I have been determined to “unflatten” the people around me for some time now. As for unlocking my husband’s heart via questions, after 58 years of marriage, I think I am getting better at this. Finally!
    Love to you and Peggy

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