On the Benefit of the Doubt
Having four kids at home, I find myself having to constantly explain to them the concept of giving the benefit of the doubt. The result of which is that the idea has become very near and dear to me. I see so many conflicts that could have been avoided if those involved understood it.
We like to think that we are good at understanding our motivations (that’s a post for another day). And because we think ourselves good at judging our motivations we justify to ourselves when we are mean or rude, inadvertently or as a side-effect of our actions.
We also are limited to viewing the world through our own eyes. As a result, we are not often privy to the appearance of our actions as seen by others. If you’ve ever watched a candid video of yourself you know what I mean. You watch yourself saying the words you remember, but your body language, your stance seem off. You remember feeling compassion during the conversation but in the video you seem almost aggressive.
It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to judge another person’s intent, and without understanding intent it is seldom fair to judge another’s actions. And yet, our level of offense is so closely tied to the perceived intent. You see someone cut in front of you in line and feel she was trying to disrespect you, or someone doesn’t respond to you and you assume he is giving you the cold shoulder. (Both may have completely innocent, albeit boring, explanations.) The point is this, seldom will you find one person being intentionally malicious toward another person, unless in retaliation for some previous injustice, real, perceived, or otherwise.
There is an old maxim that states that one should never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by ignorance. I think that is very wise. The truth is that, while as individuals we can occasionally be intentionally cruel, most people don’t like to be. Rather, we are all the heroes and heroines of our own stories. There is a sort of philosophy in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game that to truly understand someone is to love him the way he love himself. So try, the next time someone causes you some injury to view the whole event from the other’s perspective. Try to understand and see how your emotions change. Try to see that person as she sees herself and to love her as she loves herself. Let that love lead you to share the most important thing in this life, the love of Jesus, who sees every intention and died to take our place.