by Marsha Rakestraw
My mom has been a life-long role model for giving people the benefit of the doubt. Even when faced with someone’s horrific action, she has tried to suggest a reason they might have acted that way and has tried to assume the best about them.
Usually when we make assumptions about others, they’re not positive ones. We tend to make split-second judgments; build complex stories in the blink of an eye with them as villain and us as hero (or victim); attach nefarious motivations to their actions. We forget that we’re seeing them through our own lenses, with our own stories and experiences as filters that influence what we think, believe and notice.
But, as my mom has exemplified, making assumptions can be a positive thing. Here are five assumptions that we should try to make about everyone.
1. Everyone is doing the best they can at the time.
We may not be happy about someone’s actions or attitude — we may even find those actions abhorrent — but it can help if we remember that (almost) everyone is doing the best they can given their current situation and circumstances. People act and react out of pain, ignorance and fear. And we often don’t know the full context for the choices they make. So offering them patience and tolerance will help both them and us. As Philo of Alexandria said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
2. People will respond better to compassion than to anger or hatred.
Humans do a lot of horrible things. To nonhuman animals, to the earth, and to each other. It’s easy for our rage and despair to flare at the cruelties and injustices perpetrated. And when we act from a place of hatred or righteous indignation, it can certainly make us feel better. But as anyone who has faced the brunt of others’ ire knows (and as research shows), people are much more likely to open their minds and hearts when they encounter compassion.
3. People are paying attention to the message we’re modeling.
We’re modeling a message with our every word and deed. And people are paying attention. If we want a compassionate world, are we modeling compassion? If we want people to be their best selves, are we striving to be our best? Are we modeling a joyful, humane way of living that reflects our deepest values and that inspires others to want to join us? In all my years of activism I’ve had more people tell me they’ve been influenced by watching how I live my life and engage with others than by any particular campaign or strategy.
4. People are more than just the pieces of themselves.
I live in a co-housing community in which I’ve built relationships with people I probably never would have connected with in other circumstances, because the pieces of themselves that conflict with my own values would have hindered me from diving more deeply with them. If I stop and judge people based on those parts of them that disturb me (the political affiliations of certain friends and family; the fact that my brother used to work in a slaughterhouse; the friends who have to buy the latest stuff), then I’m missing out on so much: the big picture of who they are; the chance to find common ground and connect; the opportunity to learn. I certainly don’t want people judging me by the bits that get on their nerves; I hope they see beyond that to the whole — to the person I’m striving to become.
5. Everyone has something to teach us.
It may just be “Don’t do that,” but everyone has something to teach us. From the person who cuts me off in the parking lot I can remember to pay attention and drive with care for others. From the person yelling at the sales clerk I can remember to show kindness and patience. From the person stopping to help someone in need I can be inspired to take more time to help others.
Making positive assumptions about others (which in no way condones inhumane or unethical behavior) can help foster an environment in which seeing the best in others — and modeling a humane message — leads to all of us striving to be our best selves — which can lead to a more humane world for all.