writing on suffering and awakening

Giving each other the benefit of the doubt

My first instincts towards other people are not always charitable. I see someone roll through a stop sign in my neighborhood and I’m ready to call in a SEAL team, because who does that person think they are anyway? But that sort of perspective doesn’t do anything but stress me out, and make me feel more cut off from my fellow beings.

A suspicious mind is one that won’t get much rest. So one practice I’m working with: giving other people the benefit of the doubt.

This may seem like a small thing. But for me, at least, my thinking mind is constantly judging others, picking at what I perceive as failures or shortcomings. It’s not a conscious choice: I step out of my front door, and the voice in my head just starts going.

Where I do have some choice is in how seriously I take that voice. For me, that’s what giving others the benefit of the doubt means—doing my best not to get caught up in cataloging what everyone else is doing wrong. Why? Because everyone is doing the best they can with what they know.

I can see that if I look at myself. I fall short all the time—I’m selfish, I lose my temper, I put extra onions in the soup even though my wife doesn’t like it because I want to. But really, I’m just trying to get through the day.

If that’s my story, can I believe yours is any different? Perhaps the man who rolls through the stop sign doesn't actually want to tear down the framework of a civil society. Perhaps he's in a hurry to get to work. Or maybe, he just honestly doesn't think it's a big deal.

Giving others the benefit of the doubt is easier with the small stuff though. What about the larger indignities, hurts, and ugliness that we sometimes experience at the hands of people who genuinely seem to wish us harm, or at least to not care about our well-being? There again, I can start by asking myself: have I ever really hurt someone? Does that make me a bad person, or just someone who did something stupid?

Then, I can also look at why I have hurt others. The answer is always that I thought my own interests were more important. That’s not true, of course, but that thought stems from the fundamental delusion of self that we all struggle with. If I think you and I are separate, I’m going to cause suffering. If I can see that we’re connected—not just believe it, but really see it—then I won’t.

Since most of us aren’t so clear-eyed as that, we still cause suffering. But we can help ease that suffering a bit by remembering that we don’t do it out of any sort of elemental malice, but a blindness to the nature of reality. Forgive us for we know not what we do isn’t so much aspirational as boringly practical. We lose much of life’s high drama if we can bear that in mind, but we gain a smoother ride.

Ian Cooper