Unless you’re a prosecutor attempting to prove the motive of a criminal defendant, it’s okay to not always know why people do the things they do. Let it go. It’s preferable to your own peace of mind to resist the urge to draw conclusions.
I watch a lot of people fill in the blanks on people’s motives. It’s understandable. Most of us don’t just want to know the what, they want to know the why. We feel we are missing out, or worse, being made a fool of if we don’t have all the inside information.
Admittedly, I do it too. But being an optimist in general, I tend to fill in the blanks about people’s motives on a basis of giving people the benefit of the doubt. I try to conclude that someone might be tailgating me because they really have to go to the bathroom. It is advice I have given before when coping with our need to draw conclusions. But unfortunately, many people are quick to conclude in the negative when they don’t have all the facts.
Everyone makes these determinations in their own way. Some are lenient and some are harsh. It’s our own worldview and personal life experience which typically dictate the direction in which our imaginative conclusions might go. You can get a fascinating snapshot of your own inner world by objectively looking at the way you fill in the blanks.
Do you frequently assume that people have dark motives for their actions? Is the proof of that really coming from the actions themselves, or from your own personal history?
People who have been traumatized, for instance, frequently have trust issues with other people. That is perfectly understandable. But if your personal history is preventing you from trusting otherwise trustworthy people in the present, it means that the perpetrators of your trauma are still winning.
Here’s why to avoid that: It’s miserable filling in the blanks with things that will make you upset. There’s no good reason for it. It will only enhance your stress, and your brain will treat it as further evidence of humanity’s failings, despite the fact it might not even be true. Your brain won’t know the difference between what you’ve imagined and what is real because you’re actually believing in your imagination at that moment.
Your brain will not acknowledge that you don’t have all the facts. It will pump adrenaline and cortisol into your body because now you’re mad.
How is that going for you?
Take careful note of what you do with the information gaps. Especially when it comes to people you’ve never known personally. I find it really exasperating and disheartening when folks assume that others are just bad people.
I don’t believe in bad people. I do believe in people who have had bad experiences, though. I believe that people do the best they can. Even when their best is something criminal, if they believed they could do better, if they believed they were worth more, if they believed they had other choices, they likely would have taken them.
When someone steals because they feel their only two choices are to either steal or go hungry, what real options do they have? And if they’re angry at the circumstances which made them perceive the world in such a limited way, how can we be surprised by their choices? It doesn’t mean they are bad. That is filling in the blanks with darkness. And you don’t know them. You have not walked in their shoes.
You are free to openly disagree with me. But I will not be shaken from my faith in humanity. I know there are some whose circumstances make them unsafe to be around. They must be cared for separate from wider society. And people are still responsible for their actions. But as a rule, I do not believe in the inherent badness of people.
Ultimately, this comes down to the utility behind the religious caution against judging others lest we ourselves be judged. We are not supposed to judge others. It’s wrong. It’s not helpful. It’s not healthy. And when we fill in the blanks with negativity, not only are we judging them, we are likely judging them unfairly.
So next time you feel the urge to wonder why people do the stupid, harmful, ignorant, or even hateful things they do, try to have a little empathy mixed in with the consequences you imagine for them. Just leave the gaps in place, unfilled. Let it be OK that you just don’t know all the answers. Have some peace with that. Because if you do, you might find it is more than worth the effort.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div, is a Unitarian Universalist Minister at the First Parish of Fitchburg and the First Church of Lancaster. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.