As we drove to the airport a few weeks ago, a friend reminded me of Brené Brown’s important theory that maybe, just maybe, people are doing the best they can. It came up in regards to road rage, but we talked about it in relation to working moms (Brené’s example), our students, and more. So often we believe that people could be doing better (and they probably could be), but the point is that in that moment, on that day, in the midst of their circumstances, they are truly doing the best they can.
In another conversation with a different friend, we talked about the idea of thinking generously about people. Similar concepts, both that stuck with me. For example, when I am not invited to something, I can assume that they did it maliciously or intentionally, or I can make a generous assumption and creatively come up with a different idea: maybe they assumed I was also busy, maybe I had communicated that I wasn’t available or interested, maybe it was a spontaneous situation that I was not there for. One of these choices creates jealousy and anger, one invites grace.
Somehow in life we are trained, or life just teaches us along the way, to do the opposite of this. We learn to assume that people are absolutely not doing their best – that they are lazy, entitled, and hopeless. If I am honest, when I look at a lot of the world or even the smaller world right around me, it is much easier to believe that than the idea that people are doing the best they can. It is much easier to assume the worst than to assume generously. We live with a self-fulfilling prophecy mindset when it comes to other people: people are the worst, they will do their worst, therefore I see them doing their worst.
It is a practice, and a hard one at that, to live with a generous mindset. It is counter to how our brains have been wired. We view all things through scarcity and it shows. What if we chose to believe that people are doing the best they can? What if we made generous assumptions about people?
I know, I know. I am sure I know what you are thinking because I think it myself: isn’t this just an excuse for people to do poorly in all areas of life? Isn’t this just giving them an out when they don’t actually do the best they could? And sure, we all see it. There are times where people truly aren’t doing their best. But the difference is the “best they can.” For example, a college freshman doing laundry when their mom has always done their laundry for them. They put way too many clothes in the washer and it floods their hallway. Is that their best? No. Is it the best they could do in that particular moment, based on their specific circumstance? Maybe!
It is hard for us to extend grace. In this season, the Lord is gently teaching me that I am, actually, exceptionally bad at it. It is the curse of the well-behaved, raised-Christian good girl. In my arrogance I can easily make the case that I do not need grace, I have never needed it. So it is hard for me to offer it to anyone else. I have not committed the sins that would actually require grace (I hope you read my sarcasm here), so why should I learn how to offer it to anyone else? Shouldn’t everyone else do their best like I am? This way of thinking works until it doesn’t. Until I am the one who hurts someone, until I am the one who messes up at work, until I am the one who says the wrong thing. Then I fall, really far, realizing that I am actually in need of grace and generous assumptions just like everyone else.
In this learning process I have realized that forgiveness feels like a real joke to me. It feels like letting people off the hook, and that if I just hold a grudge against them forever, that is the punishment they deserve. A generosity mindset similarly challenges this thinking: we might feel that assuming the worst about someone is what they deserve, but generosity invites all of us into a more healthy, grace-filled, peaceful way of living.
In the holiday season generosity is often on our minds, either because we have spent too much money and feel limited on generosity, or because this season offers us, each year, the invitation to practice gratitude and generosity in our lives and relationships. Where in your life do you need to make some generous assumptions? Where do you need to choose to believe that people are doing the best they can?