Monday, February 20, 2006

People are doing the best they can

I want to start my blog on a hopeful note. I expect that 90% of my posts hereafter will be dispiriting, small-minded vitriol, so some inaugural hope will be good for balance.

My hopeful note is this: You can respond to others more effectively if you accept the principle that people are doing the best they can. The principle is pretty much an article of faith: I can't prove that people are always doing the best they can, and sometimes it's hard to see how it could be true. But the outcome of acting on that principle — better, effective living — is pretty easy to test. (And I'll leave that to you.)

I got the idea from Garret Keizer's 2004 book, Help: The Original Human Dilemma. Keizer got it from a local but insightful pediatric psychiatrist (Mike Moseley), who said it is an indispensable belief for people in the helping professions (p 123), where it is often hard to imagine that a person's effort is really optimal.

Keizer and Moseley don't specify what people are trying their best to do, but I think it's the obvious: contributing to the well-being of family and community, developing as a person, living a productive life, using resources efficiently, "being good", doing well, and so on.

Who benefits?

The biggest objection I imagine to the principle is that it seems to let bad behavers off the hook. Is Osama bin Laden really doing the best he can to be a good human being? Was Hitler!

But the principle doesn't let anyone off the hook, except the person who believes it. For example, a while ago I broke up with a friend. He was, for whatever reason, always ragging on me and making insulting jokes that were steadily getting louder and more vicious. He acknowledged the nastiness, but despite my requests, he didn't stop. So I wrote him a letter: "You're mean. I must stay away." Now, if he was doing the best he can, shouldn't I relent and get together with him?

Not necessarily. The best he could do was to be an asshole to me. That's sad and unfortunate, but it doesn't mean I need to spend any more time around him. It does mean I don't need to hate him or waste time fuming about his atrociousness or stewing in resentment. The principle allows me to focus on the harmful behavior instead of the man. It frees me to be open to new friends, who are also trying their best, and whose behavior may better fit my needs. If my old friend's behavior changes for the nicer, then I won't be blocked by lingering resentment from joining his company again.

The point is not that assholes and screw-ups can now escape justice thanks to my Pollyanna buzz. The point is that I am less caught up by furious indignation. I can think of more assertive, economical responses to the assholes and screw-ups who frustrate me. I no longer need to destroy them or convince them of their own stupidity.

Who can use it?

With a little imagination almost anyone can apply it, at least hypothetically, even to very upsetting miscreants. Consider all the unknowns of someone else's genetics and development and history, and the huge assortment of good and bad teachings they were involuntarily exposed to and absorbed from family and neighbors and friends and strangers and teachers and ministers and liberals and people on the news, AND the many unknowable influences of their current environmental stressors, rates of neural degeneration, insulin levels, and so on, and you can imagine how it might be true even in a very terrible case that people really are doing the best they can.

But the principle is still hard to apply. The real difficulty comes from the fact that using the principle results in the loss of righteous anger. That's a serious cost. We become afraid that if we don't hate bin Laden, we might end up tolerating his evil deeds or even agreeing with his philosophy, since we generally tolerate and at least politely agree with people we don't hate.

I am reluctant to imagine that the President is doing the best he can. I'm afraid that if I cant be angry at him, I might stop opposing his assaults on our civil liberties and economic security. But the opposite is actually the case. It isn't easy and it doesn't last, but when I get the idea that the President is doing the best he can, then I can concentrate on exactly those of his efforts that actually threaten me. All the rest that he is and does becomes irrelevant, no matter how colorful or salient those other features are. I become immune to distraction.

Maybe you are not as easily frustrated as I am. Maybe you never get so upset with a cruel or difficult person that your responses to her are less effective than they could be. Some people seem to be naturally temperate and open to others in this way.

But if you've never thought that both Bush and bin Laden are doing the best they can to achieve truly good ends, then you might benefit by trying this principle. It's an empirical issue, after all. You can test it in vivo, right now. I can almost guarantee it's reversible.

Picture of a swivel chair


Anonymous eric said...

Really cool, well thought out and true - we all have a specific capacity. Maybe you could explore how we can increase our capacity.

11/06/2007 7:26 PM  

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