“My life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”
“I am so angry with you! I feel like you don’t even care!”
“That’s not true! Did you know…”
And with that, my loved one began listing everything he’d recently done to show his care and compassion.
And I panicked. I was actually afraid he’d reveal information which would force me to admit I was wrong about my judgments of him. Because the truth is, I wanted to be angry. I wanted him to play the role of villain in my story.
Today as I sit and think about this response, I wonder: why does my brain automatically want to make someone the bad guy? Why is it that within the plot of any good story, there must be an antagonist? It occurs to me that we as human beings are hard-wired to see the world in black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. But what if this itself is wrong? What if this is simply a coping skill that, although effective, keeps us from connection? Blame and anger and hurt and resentment and hate are so much easier to reach for than compassion and love. It would have been much easier to cast blame and wrap my story up with a nice little bow, shove it into my prefabricated understanding of the world, and compartmentalize everything in a way that made sense to me. Talking it through and putting myself in someone else’s shoes, striving to see the world through their eyes, and being willing to admit when I’m wrong forces me to constantly re-work my understanding of the world and MY GOD, how exhausting and frightening that is!
We are creatures of comfort. We’re biologically hardwired to take the path of least resistance to avoid pain and struggle. But just as being willing to experience and learn from pain is how we grow, being willing to do the work that leads to compassion—putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, seeking to understand, or (most difficult of all) accepting the fact that we never will understand—is how we love.
We may never know the motives behind someone’s actions, never get the whole story, never have all the facts. I realize now that being willing to stand in the place of confusion and accept that I may never understand is a much better place to live than the illusion of certainty that judgment provides. It’s not an easy place, but it’s much better—much more compassionate—to live with humility in the unknown than to try to force things to make sense by building a foundation of half-truths and assumptions.
But what about when we do know the whole story? What if there really IS a “bad guy” in the sense that someone did something horrific that led to the pain and harm of others?
The bible speaks of judgment in two different ways:
“You will judge a tree by it’s fruit” (Mat 7:16).
“Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
I wish the English language had different words for these two forms of judgment, because the first speaks of a healthy form (which I will call discernment) based on someone’s actions, and the second speaks more of a hateful, self righteous, finger-pointing kind of blame, based, typically, on what we believe about those actions. We need discernment. It’s how we form healthy relationships and create appropriate boundaries. But we typically take the path of blame to get there, assuming we know the internal motivations behind the actions and judging/blaming them accordingly.
Judgment/blame from this place of anger, hurt, and resentment keeps us disconnected and is the place I was judging my loved one from in the beginning of our conversation. Compassionate discernment and the willingness to acknowledge that people are doing the best they can might lead me to the same conclusions about the wrongness of their actions (ie. Hitler’s best was evil) but it also enables me to discern that person’s actions while still loving and having empathy for them. I imagine it’s the way God sees us—what He means when he says nothing can separate us from His love. Because God can see that we do evil, but can somehow, almost inconceivably, continue loving us. Maybe it’s because he loves us from this place of being able to see that we really are all doing the best we can.
“God does not see what man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord sees the heart.”
–1 Samuel, 16:7