I was reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown a few months ago (I talked about another meaningful quote from the same book recently) and even though the broken alliteration of the subtitle bugs me (ha!) I was struck again by a story of hers and one line in particular. She talks about going to her counselor/therapist (I can't remember which title she gives) and telling her all about this horrible weekend she had at a conference where her roommate was truly awful. The other woman was rude, messy, and just sounded gross overall. Obviously the author wanted some validation for her story, but her therapist listened calmly and then said, "Well, most people are doing the best they can."
She sputtered in anger at the idea that her roommate, who had gone out of her way to be unpleasant, had trashed their hotel suite, and acted very selfishly, could be "doing the best she could." They discussed it further and she finally relented to the idea that maybe, despite so much evidence to the contrary, this woman could very well be doing her best.
That thought hit me like a ton of bricks. Most people would definitely say that about themselves- "Oh, I'm doing the best I can!"- but how often do we think the same about other people? The rude cashier? The person who cuts us off on the highway? (Don't get me started on these Texas drivers!) The kid who is a jerk to our kid? The "mean mom" yelling at her little girl at the mall? (I can't handle that.)
It's worth inserting here that I'm not talking about truly violent, dangerous, hateful people. Brene Brown says that there's a difference between doing wrong and being a sociopath; the latter group belongs in a separate category. And your neighbors with the dog who lets their dog bark at two in the morning and wake up your baby probably don't fall into that category. Unfortunately.)
But seriously- do we take the time to give people the benefit of the doubt? To give them grace? To sit and wonder what is going on behind the scenes that would possibly explain, if not excuse, their behavior? A rude cashier may have just lost a family member or be facing a diagnosis or any number of difficult situations. A "mean mom" may actually be a very nice mom and you just caught the tip of the iceberg on a very bad day. The possibilities are pretty much endless, and even though some people seem ignorant, or spiteful, or disgusting, or [insert negative adjective here]- they are probably doing the best they can.
Recently I was in a Walgreens grabbing some medicine for Alice and I saw two women who had several children between them. They were obviously related but I couldn't tell if they were both moms or one was a grandma or what. Anyway, in the time I waited behind them in line they had slapped two of the little girls (hard), cussed at them, and jerked them around by the arm. The cashier and I looked at each other in disgust (and pity for the kids) and as I started to think very ugly thoughts about both of them, I heard a little voice in my head: "Maybe they're doing the best they can."
Now, I don't really think it should be anyone's "best" to be abusive, verbally or physically. It's certainly not right to act that way. But I have the good fortune of having been raised by two loving parents who disciplined me the right way and weren't slapping me around or cussing at me. There's no telling what kind of background those women had that would foster such awful behavior. Another quote from a Chicken Soup for the Soul story comes to mind too- as the author was feeling extremely judgmental and superior toward (and ready to fight) a drunken stranger, an elderly man gently took the drunk by the hand and calmed him down kindly and without any violence. The author wrote, "As I stood there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I felt dirtier than he was."
I read that story for the first time probably fifteen years ago and I've thought about it many times. I'm not saying feeling judgmental or superior is "as bad as" the same kind of behavior I witnessed that day. But I am enormously privileged to have been taught right and wrong; I was loved; I didn't witness violence or mental illness or poverty or whatever. And there are days when I'm certainly not at MY best, and I would hate for someone to get a glimpse of one page out of the entire "book" of my day and judge me for that. As our former President George W. Bush said recently, "Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples- while judging ourselves by our best intentions."
Ugh- again, so convicting! It's easy to want or ask for or even (yikes) demand grace for ourselves, but it's much, much harder to dole it out (especially when the person who needs grace the most is probably the one we want to give it to the least.) But if, before we snap back, or give a dirty look, or completely lose it, could we take a second and ask ourselves, "Is this person doing the best they can?" Maybe they're not, but in the past few months I've found that simply thinking about it usually changes my perspective to one of compassion. And, judging from the news and Facebook (shudder!), the world could use a little more perspective and compassion right now. (Election arguments, anyone?!)
Oh yeah, and you know who gives us grace every single time, whether or not we deserve it? God does! He doesn't even have to ask if we're doing our best (He already knows.) He knows our worst examples AND our best intentions and gives grace for both! My BFF Sara posted the words to the beautiful old song the other day and they are such a great reminder:
What do we do with our choices? Do we look down from our self-righteous positions toward those who couldn't possibly be on "our level" as a parent, student, spouse, or Christian (knowing full well our own weaknesses and limitations)? Do we assume and hope that others are doing their best just like we are and that what we all need is grace instead of scorn? Like our greatest example, let's try to give grace, and then give and give and give it again.