Doing the best we can

Are people doing the best they can?

In her research, Brene Brown posed this question to many people and learned a lot from the results.  You can read about it in Rising Strong, her amazing new book.

So, do YOU believe that people are doing the best they can?

This is such a huge question.  Your answer to it makes the biggest difference in the world.  It is the position from which you respond to others and their shortcomings and failures.  And people fail and fall short all of the time.  Many of the inconveniences and road blocks we experience crop up because of choices others have made.  The guy in front of you is going 10 miles below the speed limit which causes you to hit every red light.  The coworker who didn’t get their part of the report to you on time.  The spouse who forgot it was their turn to get the kids from daycare.

If you are a naturally empathetic person, and/or have been raised in an unusually nurturing environment filled with patient adults, you might quickly respond that, yes, you believe people are generally trying their best.  You might even recognize that this comes across as a little naive to others, but you just can’t shake the belief that people are pretty much doing the best they can.  Your response to failure in others is empathetic and you assume that this person tried their hardest and is probably more disappointed in themselves than you could ever be.  

If you are like me, your natural tendency is to believe that when failure happens, well, people just aren’t trying hard enough.  You can see the places where they could have made a better choice and changed the trajectory of their failure.  You can see how if they would have just hurried a little, or stopped and waited or turned at this point or said something different, everything would have been fine.  You assume they have the ability to complete whatever the task was, but they chose not to focus, allowed distraction to get in their way, or just decided at some point, they didn’t care.  For me, failure is an invitation to blame.  And I’m an expert blamer.  I can tolerate failure as long as I know whose fault it was, and that they are really, really sorry and understand that it cannot happen again.  Even if I’m the culprit.  I’m way more comfortable with it being my fault than it being no one’s fault.  And I’m just as harsh with myself when it comes to my own failings.  

Now, this characteristic of insisting that someone take responsibility, self included, makes me a good leader.  Until it doesn’t.  Sometimes it makes me a terrible leader.  Because it ventures into me acting like an unfeeling, cold, control freak.  While I’ve spent years making attempts at simply controlling my behavior by using different words and tones of voice or taking five minutes before I respond to another’s failure, changing behavior only gets you so far.  The changing of the thinking is what causes transformation.

And here’s what changed my thinking.  When I flip the script, and put myself in the seat of the failing person, and someone besides myself in the judgment seat, and I experience their judgment of my failure, I feel utterly awful.  I’m already crushed by the weight of my own judgment.  I’m already embarrassed and angry at myself.  I probably was trying pretty hard in the first place.  In fact, most of the time, I’m so deathly afraid of failing, I’d risk life and limb (mine or yours) to get me across whatever finish line I’ve set my sights on.  Imagine me, doing my very best, but crossing that line just a second too late.  Imagine the crushing disappointment,  I’ve let myself down.  I’ve failed.  And then I look up, and who do I see, but someone pointing a judgmental finger at me, shaking their head in disappointment and disapproval.  But, but, but…I tried my best.  Can’t you see that?  Now, not only do I feel disappointed in myself.  I also feel shame.

So, let’s back up.  When I’m the judge, judging the failure and believing the person just isn’t trying hard enough, where is that coming from?  I notice, when I get curious about my thoughts and emotions in these circumstances, that my strongest feelings come when another’s failure impacts me.  I am slowed down.  I am inconvenienced.  I am held back.  I have to do additional work.  I have to clean up the mess.  For me, it’s not so much about feeling superior or wanting to believe I’m better.  It’s about blame.  If I watch someone make a careless mistake while driving, and bump into another car, I might feel empathy.  Ooh, that sucks, dude.  Bummer.  But if it’s MY car they hit…well, let’s rev up that blame engine because I can find 37 things that person did wrong in .25 seconds.

For me, it’s about how the mistake impacts me.  The cost I have to pay because of your carelessness, thoughtlessness, laziness, etc.  This brings us into the land of choices, and specifically, the land of choices that include things like grace and mercy.  Oh, how I crave grace and mercy for myself.  But I’m so stingy when it comes to others.  Only if I can see it on your face, see the contrition, see the regret.  Then, I’m pretty generous with my grace and mercy.  But when you think you deserve it without even feeling especially bad, or, worse yet, you don’t recognize you need it, man does my blood boil.

I realize, as I think on this, that it’s about cost.  You failed.  It impacts me negatively – so there is already a cost in my having to clean up the mess or incur a financial or time burden, but on top of that, there is a cost to the emotional toll it has on me – I feel angry or hurt.  Now I need a place to put that emotion, and the easiest, most convenient place is to point it right at you.  Blame leads me to discharge the pain I’m experiencing.  But grace leads me to keep it, and take the responsibility of transforming it inside myself instead of discharging it at you.

The idea that people are trying to do the best they can makes choosing the grace path a little easier.  That ball of anger that formed when you hit my car is so fiery and sharp.  But when I think about the possibilities of what you had on your mind, what might have distracted you, how you must feel about yourself right now, the flame loses it’s oomph.  When I consider how you also have a cost now, how you might be late for something important, and how a relationship might hinge upon your arrival.  How you made a few other mistakes today and this one is just crushing you.  Now, my heart is softer.  I can see past the indignant expression on your face and recognize that it’s not true self righteousness, that, if left undisturbed, would fuel that anger flame in me.  Rather, it’s a mask to hide the shame.  And the flame quiets and shrinks.

I’m choosing to believe, not necessarily that everyone is always doing the best they can, but that in fact, they MIGHT be.  For now, that’s the best I can do.  But it’s a start.      


The secrets you don't know about

In the work I do, in helping homeless people overcome addiction, we talk a lot about wearing masks.  We wear masks that communicate to the world “I’m fine.” We do this because saying “I’m not fine” well, it doesn’t usually produce the best results.  We almost immediately regret it and, though exhausted from keeping up the charade, we reach for the “I’m fine” mask, give ourself a pep talk about how our feelings don’t matter, we’re being a baby, we’re being selfish, we should grow up, get tougher, not be so sensitive.  We shake it off and press on.  

But we’re kind of dying a little bit inside.  More and more convinced that no one really knows us, no one understands and no one cares.  We are sure they don’t like our sad, scared, worried selves. We are, when overcome by those less fun, positive emotions, it seems, alone.  We really aren’t acceptable unless we’re functioning, helpful, happy, funny, easy-going, thankful and easy to be around. People seem to love me when I’m in Wonder Woman mode, when nothing can stop me.  But when I’m in “I’ll probably get cancer again in two years and die and my daughter will barely remember me when she’s an adult” mode…yeah, I’m not fun. I’m weird. I’m probably terrifying.  
So, we isolate.  But we want reassurance.  Comfort.  Some signal from the outside world, far away as it feels, that we still matter.  So, we reach for these phones in some feeble effort to connect.  We send a feeble text.  Maybe just a “hi.”  To someone we really want to be safe.  Or we call.  The voicemail we leave (or don’t) is upbeat.  Who wants to call back a giant loser who feels sorry for herself today.  “Just wanted to say hi!” But our hearts sink.  Why isn’t this person answering?  Did I do something wrong?  I thought we were close.  Maybe we aren’t.  Our suspicion that we kind of suck is growing.  
We look to Facebook for, what? Evidence the world hasn’t forgotten about us?  The unlikely possibility that someone said something nice about us today?  Posted something cute or funny to our timeline.  Only to find that a couple of our friends have gotten together for cheesecake without us.  They know I love cheesecake!  What. The. Hell.  We invite someone else to lunch.  They can’t go.  We feel like we’re drowning.

Our interactions become less confident.  We withdraw.  We second guess our every move.  We seem to leave disaster in our wake.  No wonder no one wants to be around us.  It’s actually kind of funny when this happens to me.  I swear it just gets worse and worse.  Since everyone hates me, I consider moving to Nebraska – people seem nice there.  Maybe I should become a monk or a nun.  In one of those cool mountain top places where they make beer, maybe? 
This happens to me about twice a year.  For about 2 days.  I convince myself I’m toxic and unlovable.  I take everything personally.  I resent everyone and I sit and pout like Jonah after the whole whale incident when God has compassion on the people of Ninevah.  As Jonah is pouting, God provides a branch leaf thing over his head for shade.  It’s a whole metaphor where God points out Jonah’s lack of compassion but I like the branch.  It’s this glimpse into who God is when we’re, as Jonah says, “so angry I could die!”  Don’t you relate to that?  My final straw is usually following a series of interactions that deflate me, the deodorant breaks into 12 pieces and falls on the floor or I get 17 red lights in a row when I’m already late.  Usually my shade branch leaf thing from God comes in the form of one really understanding person.  And it’s usually someone who feels like this pretty often.  For me, it’s like I’m off my game.  For them, it’s a constant battle against depression, anxiety and crippling insecurity.  I’m not talking about attention seeking, overly needy, constant drama llamas.  I’m talking about the people you generally enjoy, respect and care for.  Some of them are secretly really sad.  Or anxious.  They have counseling appointments and prescriptions.  They have secret, huge, overwhelming problems. And they spend a lot of time saying “I’m fine. How are you?” 

Do you know these people?  No?  Umm.  I have to tell you something.  There are people, friends of yours, who would never tell you they’re hurting.  Would never trust you with their pain.  Because you don’t seem like you want to know.  They tell you a little and you move away instead of closer.  

We’re so self protective when it comes to other peoples’ messes. Is it because we’re too busy?  So tired from the 37 things we need to do before bed?  Or maybe we’ve finally got our own mess under control for the moment?  We only like people when they’re fun?  We’re scared of other people’s pain.  

If all of this is foreign to you and especially if you want to dismiss it, then you should probably acknowledge that people don’t trust you with their pain.  

I have a couple of astoundingly emotionally intelligent people in my life that if I give them just enough of a peek into my momentary mess, they know what to do.  The empathy just floods the place.  Just from that step of them moving closer instead of backing up and  slinking out the door…just by staying with me…this reminds me of what’s true.  That I’m God’s kid.  That I’m loved.  That I’m ok.  That I’ll get my mojo back.  That I’m still lovable when I’m a mess.  

I want to be this for others, too.  I succeed occasionally – have glorious moments of getting to love someone well in a time of grief, fear or shame.  But I  mostly fail.  I slink out the door, sometimes, too.  It’s tempting to try to control things so that your mess is the only one you have to deal with.  It feels overwhelming to invite more messes in.  

But it’s one of the great paradoxes.  Mostly, dwelling in the collective messiness together helps all parties involved.  Now, if you’re codependent and constantly running toward every mess, that’s a different problem – I’m talking to the rest of us.  The isolators, the people with boundaries a mile high.  Those whose first thought is “not my problem.” 

The best thing I’ve learned about the “I’m fine” mask is this:  if everyone loves you when you’re fine, when you’re the best version of yourself you can muster – if they only love you when you’re wearing your mask, you have to be really honest with yourself about something. They don’t love you. They just love the mask.

Can we try to stop requiring people we claim to love to wear masks?  Can we welcome an occasional breakdown as a moment of authenticity that we’re honored to be a part of? Can we try to create conditions that really invite people to be themselves?  Because that, I’m convinced, is what really helps heal people.  

The work of people like John Lynch, (grace) Dr. Brene Brown (shame, blame, belonging) and Dr. Henry Cloud (healthy relating, leadership) can help us get better, healthier and more authentic.

Here are some good books:

SAFE PEOPLE by Henry Cloud

THE CURE by John Lynch and others