by Margaret Lucke
The other day a woman posted a question to an online community I participate in. She asked: What are your values, and do you live by them?
This provoked a lively discussion, with some thoughtful and insightful responses. I described my guiding principle this way: Treat people, including myself, with kindness and respect. "Including myself" often being the hard part.
A corollary to this idea is: "Give people the benefit of the doubt."
What if the shop clerk who tried to shortchange me wasn't really a crook but was distracted or lacking in arithmetic skills?
What if the editor who turned down my precious manuscript wasn't recognizing me as a talentless fraud with no future but was too busy to read my work, or was having a bad day, or wasn't in the mood for a book in my genre?
No matter what the slight or offense, I can almost always come up with an explanation that reminds me not to take things too personally.
A friend recently complained about being tired of dealing with all of the drama in her life. "I want your life," she told me. "You never have to cope with drama." I replied that often the drama isn't inherent in the situation but comes from one's reaction to it. When you give someone the benefit of the doubt, that helps you respond calmly and unemotionally, which will lower the drama quotient.
I'm not suggesting that problems aren't real or shouldn't be taken care of. The benefit of the doubt doesn't mean letting people off the hook if they've transgressed, any more than the presumption of innocence that lies at the heart of our justice system means that the police can’t arrest or the courts can’t try people suspected of committing crimes. What it means remembering the value of kindness and respect, and considering the possibility of alternative explanations.
I like drama when it's on the page or the screen, but not when it's sucking up my effort and energy in real life. I've found that when I give people the benefit of doubt, my life has gone more smoothly.
Especially -- the hard part -- when I remember that "people" includes myself.