Are People Doing the Best They Can?

I've been reading Brene Brown's Rising Strong. I like Brene Brown. She's funny and self-effacing. She writes in a way that somehow makes you feel as though you are her friend, that she'd actually wave at you from across a crowded room.

"OTF_Paper_10" by   Brent Leimenstoll ,  via Flickr,  Creative Commons

"OTF_Paper_10" by Brent Leimenstoll, via Flickr, Creative Commons

Rising Strong is about recovering from failure. Brene bases the book on a Teddy Roosevelt quote I taped to my computer a decade ago, not realizing how appropriate it would seem years into starting a business that reminds me at times of a sick dog tied to a tree. The quote is too long for a blog. The gist of it is this: It’s easy to criticize. It’s messy, hard and humiliating to do anything worth doing. But it is better to dare greatly and fail than not to dare at all.

In the middle of the book, however, Brene confronts and 'rumbles' (to use her word) with the question Are people, in general, doing their best? My response, when I first thought about it, was a quick no: I am not always doing my best, therefore other people are not always doing their best. John, my (choose one: boyfriend, partner, complicating life factor) had a more thoughtful answer. Like me, he said no but qualified it with the idea that if the answer is yes, it means there is not room within people for improvement, which is depressing. Improvement, he feels, is contingent on realizing it when you could have done better.

Brene’s husband may have had the best answer: “... When I assume people are doing their best, my life is better. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is and not what could or should be.”* Generosity is rewarded by peace of mind and, for no better reason, is worth a tinge of rose-colored lenses. Why choose unhappiness?

In scrutinizing my own behavior more closely, I’ve decided that while I do not always do my best, there are times when my honest-to-goodness best must appear pretty darn bad to others. But it is nevertheless my best in that moment.

A couple of examples spring to mind.

In one of these, I was 41 years old. I had just miscarried my only pregnancy. For this pregnancy, my late husband and I had flown to California so I could undergo surgery with a specialist. Not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars we had shelled out for it, and had many times during preceding years of tears and frustration. It was Christmas. I was at the Lindt store trying to buy chocolate balls at a busy counter, manned by a clerk who looked as though she never, ever wanted to see another chocolate ball as long as she lived. A woman beside me raised a gloved finger and tried to ask for help. I swung around, glared at her and said loudly “I was here first!” Everyone looked aghast, even the jaded clerk, and I heard someone beside me say under her breath, “Well, there’s some Christmas spirit for you.” Was this my honest best? Yes, it was. It was my best in that moment to resist the temptation to use, in addition, loud profanity.

In the other instance, which happened more recently, I hate to admit, I was at John's annual fireworks party, and an acquaintance of ours was flirting shamelessly with him. I—and not only I—noticed, over a period of hours, her persistent angling to sit beside him and stand with him. She began monitoring the party as though she was in co-charge of things: Would you like me to empty the trash? Shall I fill up this pitcher? At one point, she took a look around, picked up a dirty plate and said breezily, “Well, I guess I’ll start cleaning up!” I rose slowly from my chair to my full five-foot-seven inch height, wrested the plate from her and said in a tone I might have used with a misbehaving horse, “I’ll do it.” She blinked and said, “I was just trying to help.” Was this my best? Yes, it was. I was doing my best in that moment not to whack her over the head with the plate.

So I guess my answer must ultimately be yes, with this caveat: I believe about 70% of people, about 70% of the time are, in fact, doing their best. And this is enough for me to second guess bad behavior with, instead of knee-jerk indignation, the more compassionate thought that maybe this person has just suffered a great loss, or maybe she feels threatened, or maybe for reasons I cannot know, she is in her 70% zone, albeit not obviously. And like Brene’s husband, I’m happier living this way. What do you think? Are people doing their best, or it it just the better choice to believe so?

Comment from Ramona Dubose: Your examples made me laugh. You are right -- there are times when our "best" may seem pretty pitiful to others, but it IS our best at that moment. What a liberating way to look at people -- from the pokey driver on the interstate to the snide clerk at the grocery store. We're just human, and thank goodness we are! I once saw an inscription on a very old gravestone. All it said was her name, and "She did the best she could." I snickered at first, then wondered if the same PRAISE could be said of me. My answer was "no!" But your definition makes me feel much better!


*Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, New York: Spiegel & Grau, p. 111.