For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the knight was lost.
For want of a knight, the battle was lost.
And so it was, a kingdom was lost,
All for the want of a nail.
The above is one of my favorite poems. Call the author unknown; call them anonymous, but that verse has survived. I think a large reason why is because it makes very clear a simple notion. One act can change everything.
I have found that people’s opinions of a person can quickly change when a single incident occurs. If a guy gets stood up for the prom, he may always hold a grudge against that gal. I remember many years ago when a regular customer asked if she could skip the line because she had a meeting. Several times a week I see a man who is normally quite nice, but once, many years ago, he yelled at me for running out of cream cheese. One little incident can color our perception of people as a whole.
Take Benedict Arnold for example. George Washington thought he was just about the greatest soldier of the Revolutionary War. A British general stated that Arnold was the reason the colonials had been victorious against him. There are several stories of him having horses shot out from under him and he kept fighting. (Not a solitary horse. Horses.) He was shot in the leg several times, the second by a musket ball shattered the bones in his leg, causing one limb to be a full two inches shorter than the other when it healed. He led by example, using his daredevil attitude and physical skill to charge into battle boldly, inspiring his men at every turn. He was a brilliant businessman, a respected community member, and receiver of many accolades.
But we do not remember any of that. We remember that he turned his back on the U.S. and his friend Washington. Benedict Arnold means that you are a back-stabber, a traitor.
Then there is Doubting Thomas. Forget the fact that he was trusted enough to be one of Jesus’ close followers. He is the person that dared to ask questions. Forget the fact that when he heard that Jesus wanted to go back to a town where others had attempted to stone them, he gave a response that many would not.
“Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’.” -John 11:16
Loyal to the bitter end.
Again, that is not what we are told to remember. Flip forward to John 20 and we see Jesus coming back from the dead. Thomas was not there with his friends, so he is a little skeptical.
Hey, our friend came back from the dead. Really! Being told something like that, anyone else would be credited for being slow to believe.
“But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it’.” –John 20:25
It seems that part of why we judge Thomas so strongly is that he exposes our weakness. Any of us would have done the same, and we want our examples to be better than us; to set the example and rise above.
Perhaps the clearest modern-day example is Mel Gibson. He once was an award-winning director, and actor. Between Braveheart and the Lethal Weapon movies, he was quite the in-demand fellow. The Passion of the Christ, his self-financed project, went on to become one of the highest grossing independent films ever.
Then he had, well, let us call it an “incident”. After his incident, he became a pariah. Roles are now hard to come by for him. Most would agree that the man should not have said what he did.
I am not exempt from any such behaviors. I like to believe that I am a reasonably well-behaved person. I open doors for people, donate old clothes, what have you. However, I caused an episode back in elementary school.
There was a pegboard, complete with nails and little chips that we hung on them when we came back from break. My best friend was a bit of a prankster. When we ran back from class, I got there first and hung a chip on the board. My best friend took my chip off and promptly placed on his name. I am pretty sure he was grinning when I shoved his head against the pegboard. He still has a scar on his forehead. (For, “want of a nail” indeed.)
I was an emotional mess. I was probably eight at the time. My friend was in much better state than I was. He down played the offense when we went before principal. I curled up into a whimpering mess of a boy. That day was hardly my finest moment, but certainly one that stands out.
All of these are examples of one incident changing the perspective of a person. What I would suggest is not rushing to judgement because of a single act. Rather, see if the attitude persists. Benedict Arnold was, to put it gently, somewhat opportunistic. Thomas was, by all accounts, only human, and therefore prone to doubts. I learned a long time ago that I have a temper (but I try to keep it in check. Honest!).
Consider the big picture. Look for repeated behavior. If you notice a businessman making shady deals over and over, by all means, avoid his offers. Should you come across a person who is soaking wet, tired, and glaring at you; perhaps choose to believe that this is an instance of them simply having a bad day. And yes, that “certain someone” may catch your fancy with the way they flip their hair behind their ear; but is there a deeper connection than that?
Rushing to an opinion is easier. It certainly is faster. Yet for all its convenience, a little more studying is usually called for. The knight might not look like much from far away, but if you keep an eye on him, he could lead you to believe he could save a kingdom.