“Were I in your place.” Job 5:8 (Moffatt)
Here are words which may represent the very extremes of attitudes as they are used in human relationships. The smug arrogance of the words is concealed in the Revised Version’s translation, “As for me.” Eliphaz is delivering one of those long moral lectures which made up the chief of Job’s sufferings. “Were I in your place,” he says – and oily complacency oozes out of the very words – “I would repent my sins and ask God’s forgiveness.” The fact that Job restrained himself from a joyous, justifiable homicide is a true measure of greatness. These words are a perfect expression of that false imagining of oneself in another’s place, for purposes of harsh, blind judgment and self-glorification. That is one of the most irritating things in the world. On the other hand, this phrase, “Were I in your place,” may be, and millions of times has been, the expression of that most divine of all human arts, the art of dramatizing the situation of another person, of slipping the key to a sympathetic imagination into the closed door of his life and entering into his problems and perplexities.
The dramatic interest is embedded so deeply in human nature that we will always be thinking, and often be saying, “Were I in your place.” What is the emotional background of our words? The difference between the two ways of using the words is just the difference between hell and heaven.
Think of the many present-day survivals of Eliphaz, seated in the seat of the comfortable, softly purring with self-laudation, looking down on the miseries of Job, dispensing patronizing reproach and advice. Eliphaz is the grandee of the economic world, lecturing the poor on the virtues of thrift. “Were I in your place,” he says, in an interview graciously granted to the Associated Press, “I would be more industrious and saving. Look at me, for instance.” Or he discourses with the colossal assurance of a Henry Ford on subjects on which his ignorance is extensive and peculiar. Eliphaz is the loveless moralist, swift to judge, with no understanding of life’s tensions.
But the words may also be a symbol of that identification of oneself with the aspirations and frustrations, the anguish and the hurt of others, which is the essence of Christian love. “Were I in your place,” one says, and he steps into the other’s place – feeling the mangling of the harrow which does not immediately crush him.
James M. Barrie, some years ago, gave a beautiful expression of this dramatic art, when appealing for the Scottish poor of London:
“These people are – ourselves. A turn of the wheel and we might
be there and they here. What a hole we should be in, you and I,
if we had got only bare justice from life! And some of them
have not got even that. Starved of the necessities of life, of which
the chief is love.”
Willa Cather has crept into many lives with understanding and sympathy. When only eight years old, on her father’s Nebraska ranch, she would ride her pony round the country, getting acquainted with her polyglot neighbors – Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Bohemians, Germans, French Canadians. “I used to ride home,” she says, “in the most unreasonable state of excitement. I always felt as if they told me so much more than they said – as if I had actually got inside another person’s skin.”
Inside another person’s skin!
There, but for the grace of God!
“Were I in your place” - - -