The Ugly American

Terry Lieb Judging Others 2 Comments

During a recent cruise vacation, Rita and I were having lunch at the open dining restaurant that Rita referred to as “the trough” when I overheard two couples talking at the table behind us. The one gentleman explained how badly he felt about taking so much food and then not being able to eat it all. The other gentleman quickly and loudly stated, “I paid for this vacation with my own hard-earned money and I’ll eat as much and throw away as much food as I want!” It got very quiet at the table. I could feel my temperature start to rise.

Even prior to this, I had been shocked by the amount of food piled on plates and then left sitting. I wondered what the cruise ship staff must be thinking since many of them were from economically disadvantaged countries where food wasn’t something that could be taken for granted. I had even asked one of the Indonesian dining staff her response to all of the wasted food. She appeared very uncomfortable and eventually said in a very low voice, “I’m sorry but it would be very inappropriate to answer your question.” I realized I had put her in a very awkward position and quickly apologized for my insensitivity in even asking the question.

A few days later, though, she approached me as I sat having breakfast alone. She said, “I will answer your question with the understanding you won’t discuss my response in any setting that could jeopardize my job.” I agreed; the last thing I wanted was to put her livelihood at risk! “If I could put all this abandoned food in large shipping containers just as it is and send it to my home country,” she told me earnestly, “there are starving people who would see these leftover scraps as a glorious banquet.”

I had been saddened by her comment and by the wasted food, but this man’s attitude—the sense of entitlement—bothered me even more. As I age my understanding of “ownership” has shifted. I’m coming to an understanding that all I have and all I have access to isn’t a right or an entitlement. It’s actually a gift. When you give someone you love a special gift, how do you want or expect them to care for and respect that gift? How then does our God expect us to care for the food, the water, the environment, and all that God has given us?

By the time we got back to our room, I had worked myself into a fine self-righteous snit. The man was arrogant, disrespectful, ungrateful, and self-centered. The prototypical “ugly American.” I hoped people on the boat didn’t think his outlook was one all Americans shared. I was embarrassed to be associated with him in any way, shape or form. I was nothing like him. I almost never waste food. In my family of origin thriftiness was next to godliness and wasting food was not permitted—ever.

As I calmed down and was able to see things a little more clearly, I began to wonder if I was really as blameless as I was acting. Could I really say I wasn’t guilty of being wasteful myself? Okay, sure. I don’t waste food. But that was a habit ingrained from childhood. What about other things? What is it that you waste in your life now, Terry? I asked myself.

Rather quickly it came to me. Water. I waste water when I take long showers, when I leave the tap running while I’m shaving, when I water our plants, etc. And this while a billion people do not have access to clean water!

When we got home from the cruise, I began consciously conserving water. I shortened my showers, shut the tap off while shaving, and became mindful about how much water I used in my yard. And I didn’t stop with water. I took other steps to reduce my waste, like recommitting to carrying my reusable bags into the grocery store, something I often forgot to do despite my best intentions. It felt good being productive rather than just stewing about things—and people—who were out of my control. I congratulated myself for turning a negative into a positive.

It wasn’t until later that I was able to see that the most important lesson that I needed to learn that day on the boat wasn’t about waste at all. I thought that the gentleman on the boat had disrespected God with his cavalier attitude toward food. But what about my harsh, critical attitude toward him, one of God’s most precious creations? Were my anger and judgment toward that man any less wrong than his attitude to burgers and fries? In the end, I had to ask myself, which of us was really the “ugly American” on the boat that day?

My judgmental attitude was not easy to admit to myself. After all, I put a lot of effort into being non-judgmental. I’ve even written about it on this very blog! But it just goes to show that no matter how pure our intentions, as humans, we’re always imperfect. The journey of spiritual growth is never over; it’s one that we take up again every day. Some days we are more successful than others, but as long as we keep trying, keep picking ourselves up after failures and recommitting to our ideals, over time we’ll get closer and closer to the person we want to be.

Questions for Deepening Your Faith Journey

Have you ever considered the true nature of ownership? Do we really “own” things just because we “bought” them? How did the person who sold it to you come to own it to begin with? Who really “owns” the resources of the earth?

How does your conception of ownership inform how you treat “your” things or the earth’s resources in general? Would you treat them any different if you saw them as a gift, a loan, or a sacred trust?

In what specific areas of your life do you see yourself as being wasteful?

If you can identify an area of wastefulness, do you have the gumption, dedication, respect and growing appreciation for all we have been given to begin changing some of your behaviors? What specific steps can you make?

If you don’t see yourself as being at all wasteful in any area of your life, what possibly could be feeding or justifying your denial?

Can you admit at least to yourself that at times you are judgmental of others?  If your answer is no, you may want to avoid my blogs, because some level of self honesty is essential! If you answered yes, do you have the interest and courage to embrace a journey toward greater acceptance and love?


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October 24, 2018 9:36 pm

Well said Terry.
While reading I too shared in that self righteous indignation, coupled with my, sometimes too quick, judgement on that individual.
Reminded me of a quote I read not long ago, roughly…..don’t judge others just because they sin differently than you.
As you say, this spiritual growth is a daily struggle, some days I feel I did ok…others, not so much but it is the walk, the continuing trying to better yourself, your responses, words, actions that matter with the goal of improving your faith walk.
Thank you for sharing

Laura Lewis-Barr
December 26, 2018 9:57 pm

I like the way you circled around this event and found more and more to discover. Life is like that, each moment is a hologram, offering us insights into the microcosm (my soul) and the macrocosm. I’m struck by Jung’s exploration of “The Shadow” and how when we look toward the Light, we often don’t see the shadow we cast behind us. Like you, as I age I discover more and more areas in myself that display my “shadowy” traits. This is helping me learn humility!