The title of this post is inspired by a famous passage in the New Testament that vividly illustrates how unreliable and fickle people’s opinions are. Acts 27-28 tells the story of how the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on an island called Malta. The Roman authorities were transferring Paul on a prison ship to Rome to be tried by Caesar for allegations of sedition leveled against him by the Jews (Acts 24:5-6), when a vicious sea storm struck. Fortunately for Paul and his fellow prisoners, the people of Malta were unusually kind. However, when Paul was stoking a fire, a viper jumped up due to the heat and fastened itself to his hand. When the islanders saw this, they concluded that Paul was a murderer and that fate was punishing him for crimes he committed in his life (some version of “karma” or “sowing and reaping”). Note this fascinating excerpt from Acts 28, paying special attention to verse 6.
The Apostle Paul On The Island Of Malta
1 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand.
4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.Acts 28:1-6
The people of Malta went from making the worst assumptions about Paul to the best assumptions, all within a span of minutes. This passage is striking not because the people of Malta were exceptional, but because they are the rule among human beings. Most people are prisoners of the moment. They are emotionally bewitched by the latest word, action, or piece of news they have access to. People rarely ever look at the big picture. As a result, their opinions are often not an accurate portrait of reality.
Now they see you as a beast, a monkey. But in a week they’ll think you’re a god—if you rediscover your beliefs and honor the logos.Marcus Aurelius
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with responding to new information. That is the mark of an intelligent, evolving mind. However, that is often not what is going on. People typically make their judgments based on very limited information about situations to begin with. Oftentimes, they have no direct knowledge themselves, but merely follow whatever the majority opinion happens to be at the time–or the opinion of the clan or sect or party or group they belong to.
Jesus Christ is a case in point. Like Paul, people’s opinions of Christ radically changed, but for the worse. Christ made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he was hailed as a king, just days before that same mob clamored for him to be crucified. What new information did they obtain in that time that warranted such a massive change in heart? None, of course. When it was fashionable to publicly lionize Christ, the Jews lionized him, and when it was fashionable to publicly malign him, you know the rest of the story.
Maybe you’ve been in similar situations where people’s attitude toward you radically changed, for better or worse, all within a short period of time. People sometimes do not give us due credit for our virtues, and they are often not familiar with our darkest vices. Only God has the knowledge and ability to judge accurately.
There’s a saying, forewarned is forearmed.
It implies that knowledge of a situation is power, because it enables us to make necessary adjustments. We should accept the fact that people are what they are, and are unlikely to ever change as a collective. When we recognize the chaos and instability characteristic of people’s perceptions, we can practice equanimity [calm, control, even-handedness] in every social situation. That means training ourselves to take the good things people say to us, and about us, no more to heart than the bad ones.
Easier said than done, but it starts with this simple realization.
For more, see the complete archive of articles on integrity.