Brandon Gregory is a volunteer for the worship and missions teams at Church of the Resurrection. He helps lead worship at the Vibe, West, and Downtown services, and is involved with the Malawi missions team at home.
Stella Liebeck was an elderly woman who became famous in a most unexpected way. She sued McDonalds because her coffee was too hot. And she won. The jury awarded her with over 2.8 million dollars. Her story had a spotlight in the national news in 1994 and is still remembered to this day as the pinnacle of frivolous lawsuits. The story made a lot of people very mad. It made me mad. I thought it was ridiculous. It served as a strong reminder of what lengths Americans would go to just to earn a quick buck.
It wasn’t until the past year, twenty years after the lawsuit, that I learned more about what actually happened. Liebeck spilled some McDonalds coffee on herself and suffered horrific third degree burns all over her legs and pelvic regions. Photos of the injuries were extremely graphic and unsettling. She was hospitalized and needed several skin grafts and over two years of medical treatment. She racked up enough medical debt to absolutely destroy her life. When she went back to McDonalds to ask them to help out with the medical expenses, they refused several times before the matter went to court. All she was after was a way to pay off her medical expenses. It was the jury, after seeing what the woman had been through and how bad the injuries were, that decided to award her with 2.7 million in punitive damages in addition to the medical expenses. (By the way, this number was actually reduced to $640,000, so she didn’t even get the full amount she was awarded.) But to this day, Liebeck is remembered as the woman who sued McDonalds because her coffee was hot, not as the woman who suffered horrible burns and got buried in medical debt.
Now that I know the truth, the story serves as a strong reminder of how easy it is to get mad at the wrong things. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn many times over the years.
As a kid, I didn’t exactly have a bad temper, but I knew, even as a kid, that there were times I got mad that I really shouldn’t have. That’s not to say that there weren’t times I should have been mad–I just really hated getting angry and then finding out I was wrong in my perception. So pretty early on in life, I set a rule: when someone did something to make me mad, I would wait and think about it before acting on it. I realize that this doesn’t work for some people and may be harmful to them, but I’m someone who needed time to think about things, so this really helped me process what I was feeling and why I was feeling it.
But a curious thing started to happen. There were times I calmed down realized I shouldn’t be mad, but there were other times when sitting on things like that would make me even more mad. So, while I had fewer unjustified anger outbursts, the ones I had were generally worse. It took me a while to realize this, and when I did, I just tried harder to think about things before acting.
And that didn’t work. My outbursts grew more infrequent, but still worse. And I started to realize that what I was doing wasn’t really working.
You see, what I was doing was trying to be slow to speak and slow to anger. But James 1:19 lists a vital step before this: be quick to listen.
The Christian answer to anger is not patience, but empathy. Patience is required to find the empathy, but patience on its own will not solve the problem. I can take all the time in the world to think about something, but if I don’t have a good grip on why they did something in the first place, I’m going to keep coming back to an assumption that I am right and they are wrong.
A great example of this is my perception of Stella Liebeck. After twenty years, I don’t think I felt much differently about her than when I first heard about the case. Twenty years and nothing changed. But then, after watching one ten-minute video with the facts, I realized my anger had been completely uncalled for. Ten minutes of being quick to listen would have changed my perceptions of her for twenty years, had I sought out the truth earlier.
Of course, there are much more important things than what I think of a woman who won a lawsuit twenty years ago. There are times I get mad at my wife without thinking about why she did what she did, or times I get mad at a co-worker for putting undue pressure on me and behaving irrationally without understanding why they acted that way. The truth is, people rarely behave maliciously or irrationally without a solid reason. Oftentimes, they’re not behaving maliciously or irrationally at all–I’m only perceiving it as such. But the truth is so much harder to process than simple explanations we come up with to explain behaviors we don’t fully understand.
This realization begs a different rule than the one I set earlier in life. When someone does something to make me mad, I now ask why. Until I know why, there’s not enough data to really act. I can’t say I do this perfectly or every time–there are still times I get mad when I shouldn’t–but taking the time to ask why and seeking an honest answer has granted me a lot more empathy for the people in my life than I’d previously had. I find it easier to love them and accept them. I find it easier to understand the issues they’re dealing with.
Asking why is the first thing we should do in any conflict, and getting a good answer is the second. Without these, as James says, “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” Remember not to let anger become a needless barrier to love–disarm it with empathy, so we can get back to what God has called us to.
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