Thursday, December 18, 2014

Choosing to Give the Benefit of the Doubt

I was watching an old "Joan of Arcadia" episode the other day in which Joan was spying on her boyfriend and best friend and caught them "hugging".  She assumed, then, that they were having an affair, though the reality was that they had been talking about Joan and how much she meant to each of them.  Judith, her best friend said, "the thing about Joan is that even when you are pushing her away, she sticks with you.  Most people don't do that.  That makes her worth keeping."  But Joan didn't hear what Judith had been saying and she attacked her, physically, assuming she was trying to "steal" her boyfriend.

I've been thinking about this at two different levels.  First of all, I realized that I have been blessed with an absolutely amazing group of friends, people who "stick with you", no matter what.  I think Judith was right.  Most people don't do that.  When you are no longer serving them, when you've messed up, or for whatever reason, people move on, often, and quickly.  Again, I have an amazing group of friends who are still there, some for 30 or more years, and for that I am deeply, deeply grateful.  So, to all of you, my amazing friends, I want to say thank you.  Thank you for being steadfast and loving the imperfect being that is me, through thick and thin, for all these many, many years.

But the second reason this has been stuck in my head was Joan's assumptions about what she saw. Why do we see things the way we do?  What causes us to make assumptions one way or another about situations?  I think it can be very easy to assume that people are acting against us, talking bad about us, pulling away from us, acting maliciously, striking out.  I was at a gas station the other day and I saw a woman move away from her car and start yelling at a man in another car.  The man just looked bewildered.  Apparently, he had not seen a bag of groceries she had put in the road and he had almost hit it.  ALMOST.  He didn't see it.  It was on the ground where she'd put it down while trying to juggle another bag and a small child.  No one was at fault and nothing was actually damaged.  She could have focused on how lucky it was that the bag didn't get hit.  She could have focused on the not-so-great choice she made to put a bag down in the middle of the road.  But instead she chose anger.  She made assumptions about his behavior that led her to become attacking and even abusive towards this stranger.

Sometimes when someone doesn't respond to us it is because they are busy or overwhelmed or sick. But it can be easy to assume they are mad at us or pushing us away.  Sometimes when someone snaps at us it is because they've had a horrible day and are just at their wits end.  But it can be easy to assume they are a nasty person or mean or, again, pushing us away.  Sometimes when accidents happen, they are just accidents that happen.  But it can be easy to accuse a person of being stupid or malicious or worse.

I know a few amazingly peaceful people.  And it seems to me that part of that peaceful attitude is that they make positive assumptions about what is happening around them.  They don't tend to take things personally, or assume the worst about a situation.  They choose to assume the snappy person is having a bad day, that the stranger who almost hit their bag just truly was at such an angle in the car that they couldn't see it, that the person who hasn't responded to them is just overwhelmed.  If Joan had been in that mental position, she might have asked what was going on, or assumed the hug was just exactly what it was - a supportive hug.  Maybe that's optimistically naive.  But I've watched these peaceful people respond with those positive assumptions, and the result is amazing.  When they can respond with compassion to someone else's snappy-ness, when they can simply give space to another person who is failing to respond, not only does the person responding remain happier and calmer, but the one acting out usually calms down as well.  Even if the assumption is wrong, even if the other person really had malicious intent or was pushing or pulling away, choosing to respond with a positive assumption seems to either push the other to be honest and direct, or can help to simply dissipate a problem.

We can choose to not assume the worst.  Or at the very least, we can ask about our assumptions.  "Are you upset with me or is something else going on?"  But when we assume the worst, we set everyone up.  In the Joan of Arcadia episode Joan's assumptions almost cost her both her best friend and her boyfriend.  The lady in the gas station nearly missed an opportunity to connect positively with another person and potentially gave them both a bad morning.  Fortunately, the man she was yelling at appeared to be one of those peaceful people I'm talking about.  He got out of the car, talked quietly and with a slight smile.  He looked the bag over carefully to make sure it hadn't been hit, gently handed it to the woman with an apology and a kind smile.  He asked how old her child was and said that she seemed to be such a pretty little girl.  The yelling woman was taken aback.  And while at first she continued to rant and rave, she started stumbling over her words and finally started to cry.  The peaceful man reached out a hand, gently squeezed her shoulder, asked if there was anything he could do, and they ended up standing in the gas station while the woman cried and talked about all the stress she was experiencing over the holiday season.  The man's peaceful demeanor changed the conversation for both of them.  It was a gift to me to witness as well.

My prayer is that we might choose more often to give the benefit of the doubt.  And just see where that might lead us...