The defining question of our times: Are people no more than sophisticated baboons? Are we the product only of random, materialistic evolution? Why does it matter? Because if the answer is ‘yes’ then whenever men do bad things, they do so only because of genetic imperative or imposed societal influences. It would mean that humans have no more choice about their behavior than do baboons. The political, social, criminal and economic consequences of how this question is answered are colossal. The past fifty years of American cultural change substantiate this assertion.
The consequences to the personal and business lives of individuals are no less significant. If I decide that, like bears, bunnies, and baboons, I too must act upon urges, appetites, and emotions, neither my wife, children nor my business partners can ever truly trust me. As a business professional of this bent, I would mistakenly assume that my employees and customers have only materialistic desires, assumptions that would surely mislead my enterprise.
Yet to any genuinely curious person with no axe to grind, the evidence that humans are distinctively different from all other species of life on the planet is overwhelming. We are the only species that will imperil our physical bodies in order to gain some spiritual solace. We risk damage to our systems by absorbing alcohol, drugs and tobacco for non-physical benefit. Some of us engage in risky sports for non-physical benefits like a rush or a thrill.
I am not attempting a complete catalog of differences between people and animals; that would take a book. But I do intend demonstrating one of the more remarkable distinctions. For the most part, animals’ faces tend to remain constant throughout their lives. Human faces change as we live, reflecting character and morality changes.
For instance we all recognize the dissolute face of the debauched and self-indulgent Sir John Falstaff, as Shakespeare portrayed him. By contrast, the sharp and alert face of a senior career military officer reveals a life time of self-discipline and patriotic dedication.
Regardless of the sweet looking face he once wore as an adolescent choir boy, the man who has spent half a lifetime acting brutally on violent impulse has developed a face of focused feral resentment, concentrated malignity and outraged egotism. We all instinctively know to avoid provoking the owner of that face. The priest who has spent years caring for the needy has developed an entirely different looking face.
Abraham Lincoln was said to have insisted that, “Every man over forty is responsible for his face.” Indeed, we are the only species whose face eventually begins to reveal the inner character of its owner. What is more, we are the only species capable of learning how to read the faces of others.
Ancient Jewish wisdom encourages us to read faces. It is based on three timeless truths about faces, or to be more accurate, about the Hebrew word for face—PaNiM.
First, ‘face’ is one of only three words that is repeated within the profound and mysterious first two verses of the Bible. In those 21 words, we encounter God mentioned twice, earth mentioned twice and face mentioned twice.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
These three words, repeated for emphasis, address the basic triangle of reality: God, the world and humans. Although not created yet, the word face hints at that future creation.
Sure enough, dating sites on the web report that profiles that carry even just one picture of the hopeful dater’s face obtain over ten times as many responses as those that comprise only written descriptions. We can know more about a person by looking at the face than we can by observing the elbow, shoulder, or knee.
Second, the Hebrew word for face, PaNiM, is a plural word. This is because the Lord’s language recognizes that during our lives, unlike animals, we will wear many faces. Not only will our faces reflect maturing and aging, but more importantly they will begin to reflect our inner characters.
Third, the word PaNiM also means inside or inner which teaches us that the face is the window into the inner part of the person.
You know how much more assiduously you search for your lost keys if you know that they are definitely in a certain room. You keep searching because you know you will eventually find them. But if you have no idea where they could be you never search quite as diligently. Similarly, ancient Jewish wisdom informs us that the face is the best indicator of the person. Now that we know this, we will diligently search for how to read faces.
What is the best way to develop this skill? By meeting and getting to know as many people as possible while training oneself to observe spiritual hints. Police detectives often learn to catalog criminals by modus operandi which enables them to examine a crime scene and attach a name. Most of us intuitively catalog people in our minds in terms of jobs, relationships, geography and name. With a little focused effort we can accustom ourselves to linking face, personality, and character. It’s a useful ability for those occasions when quickly evaluating a stranger is necessary. It’s also useful to remember that by modifying our own characters, we can eventually modify our faces. As King Solomon put it, “A happy heart makes a cheerful face…” (Proverbs 15:13)
And this is true for no other creature on the planet. Humans are touched by the finger of God.