In theory our court systems work on a principle that a person brought into court for trial is innocent until a jury of his peers finds the person to be guilty. In our own lives, however, we frequently presume that people are guilty and do not give them the benefit of the doubt.
Benefit of the Doubt
I’m not referring to the sort of giving the benefit of the doubt when a person confesses to a decade old crime and, after the media vilifies him and hangs him out to dry, is released after there isn’t a shred of evidence found that could possibly link him to the crime. I instead refer to far simpler everyday occurrences that could in the long term have more serious repercussions.
Frequently in our everyday lives things happen in our interactions with people that cause us to suspect that they must be up to no good. Unfortunately this happens more often that not and one of the biggest causes of it is having a negative world view to begin with. Rabbi Yisrael Meir, known as the Chofetz Chaim after the book he wrote with the same title, once famously suggested that the amount of slander that we speak is proportionate to how favorably we judge one another. When we presume to know the reasoning behind a person’s actions and make judgments based on these assumptions, the trouble begins and a negative viewpoint is reflected.
One of the most common occurrences of this is when people are driving. How many times have you been in your car driving along when someone suddenly came out of what appeared to be nowhere and just cut you off, causing you to nearly hit the person? The easy thing to do would be to say that this person is just an inconsiderate jerk and that clearly they must have some sort of superiority complex that is causing them to need to be ahead of everyone else. Alternatively we could yell at them, “Where are you going in such a rush?” We yell this in a sarcastic manner and are convinced that there couldn’t possibly be anyplace that the person could be going that could be so important to justify that kind of driving.
Realizing Other Possibilities
It’s only a few days later when you are late to a meeting with a client or are running late to a dentist appointment and you are so harried and worried about getting there on time that you don’t even notice when you accidentally cut someone off in traffic. When the person honks their horn and yells at you, you are hurt and yell back at them. You didn’t see them there, and besides, you have somewhere to be and just don’t have the time to wait for people who are clearly driving slower than people should be driving on the road. Because it is now your emergency you don’t realize that you just became the person that you were honking at a few days beforehand.
Perhaps in the future when you are driving and someone cuts you off you can think a little differently. Instead of assuming that the person is just an arrogant jerk who clearly thinks he is better than everyone else, you should extend him the benefit of the doubt. You can even extend a little sympathy, if you’ve got it in you – and everyone has it within them to extend sympathy to a stranger, believe it or not. You can think to yourself, “I hope that person is okay and that nothing terrible happened – and that they get to wherever they need to go in time.” This achieves more than one thing. For one thing, you don’t elevate your blood pressure to the point where any good doctor would tell you that you need to take some prescription calming medication. Moreover, you don’t give the person the power to ruin your day by doing as simple as not necessarily being the most attentive driver in the world – maybe even for a good reason.
There was an episode of Boston Legal where a man was being tried for stealing a woman’s wallet. From her perspective, he came up to her while yelling, took the wallet out of her purse, and ran off. He stopped about a minute later and tried to give the wallet back but she went to the police and had him arrested. The woman had her wallet out in the courtroom to help with the explanation.
The prosecuting attorney asked the man if this was the case. He said that everything she said was true but there was one tiny piece of information lacking that entirely changed the situation. He saw the woman looking through her purse and he distinctly saw her holding his wallet. He ran up to her yelling that she was a thief and snatched his wallet back from her and started running. As he was running he started looking through the wallet and realized that the photos were not his and none of the pieces of identification belonged to him. It was then that he realized that it was not his wallet at all, so he went to give it back. After all this, the attorney asked the man if they were to believe that it could really be possible that it was just a case of mistaken identity and that he really believed that it was his own wallet. Yes, he said, taking out his wallet – one would say it was the twin of the woman’s wallet.
It’s funny on the show, but things like this happen in real life all the time. A person may misplace something of theirs and see a friend of theirs with it a couple of days later and assume that surely the friend must have taken it without asking for it. How could they have done this, we ask ourselves. What kind of friend are they that they would just take my camera without asking me if it would be okay to borrow it first? A few days later after much thought has been put into it and one has burned many calories from being filled with a boiling rage, a sheepish feeling sets in as you find it in a dresser drawer that you put it in while you were cleaning the apartment.
At the end of the day we can assume that people have good intentions in what they are doing or we can think that everyone in some way is greedy and is out to get us. To be sure, the second way of thinking might make us extra cautious – it most likely makes us extra miserable as well. Thinking of the world with such a negative perspective accomplishes nothing but shortening our life and making the world just about as gloomy as we see it – partially because we choose to see it that way. By looking for the good in others and assuming that there was good intention and that perhaps we are missing a different perspective that would change a situation, you can eliminate not only a lot of stress from your own life but enhance the life of others at the same time.