Years ago I worked with Barbara. Barbara was old enough to be my mother. I was a young woman straight out of college on my first job in an administrative position that included some creative writing. Barbara answered phones.
I’d hear her at the front desk from my office next door. “Good morning and thank you for calling. How may I help you?” Her voice was soft, sweet, comforting, and relaxing, like water slipping along a creekbed. More memorable than her voice, however, was her disposition and overall attitude in life−her voice was a reflection or perhaps even a manifestation of her sweet spirit.
We only worked together a year or so, and then both she and I left that place and moved on to other things. I saw her a couple of years ago and she looked−and sounded−great. I learned a lot from her during those few months of listening and working next to her. She modeled something I needed to remember for life. She modeled a lot of important things, actually, but one in particular stands out to me.
“I may be foolish or naive,” she told me one time after dealing with a stressful phone call, “but I always give people the benefit of the doubt.”
When people were rude to her, she assumed they had a bad day. If they messed something up, they must be struggling with something. If they forgot a lunch date or deadline, they had a lot on their mind.
She called it giving people the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t simple, however, and required a lot of strength and depth of character. Barbara had learned to let things slide off her back. She was rarely offended. If someone hurt her feelings, she quickly forgave him or her and always gave people another chance. She didn’t judge. She wasn’t bitter. She seemed to practice the proverb, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11). She overlooked many offenses−I heard her doing it. She was kind and loving, gentle and generous. She modeled a gracious heart every single day.
I thought of Barbara when I read a story in O magazine a year or so ago written by a life coach who worked with executives who had little sympathy for their employees’ actions. They assumed the worst−that their workers were lazy or didn’t care.
She told them a story in her seminars and classes. The story went something like this (if you can find a link, I’ll put it in; for the life of me, I can’t locate it online):
You’re waiting for a red light. You’re late and feeling stressed. The light changes, but the lady driving the car in front of you doesn’t move. You can tell she’s messing around in the car−she isn’t paying attention to the light. You tap your fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for her to start moving. You grumble. You honk. You finally shout, “Hey, lady, the light changed! Get a move on!” even though your windows are up and she can’t hear you. You honk again, exasperated. Then you can’t believe your eyes−the lady gets out of the car and flings opens the back car door! What, can’t she find her cell phone? Unbelievable! Thanks to this driver, you’re about to sit through another cycle of this light! Honk honk!
She’s leaning across that back seat fumbling around, and you realize that she’s unlatched a baby from its car seat−the child was choking, and she’s frantically clearing his throat.
There was a reason.
There’s almost always a reason.
I thought of Barbara, because Barbara would have given the driver the benefit of the doubt. “I’ll bet something’s wrong,” she would have thought. “Maybe she’s distracted with some bad news, or maybe her baby is in the back seat with a problem.” In fact, I’ll bet Barbara would have thought, “Maybe I should see if I can help.”
That’s how Barbara is.
That’s how I want to be.
As I was working on this post, I had to save it as a draft in order to meet a friend for coffee. The Boy was with me. The light changed at a major intersection and every car in the oncoming lane was at a standstill. Our turn. We accelerated to cross the road when a woman in a van blew through the light! I slammed on the brakes and pushed on the horn so that it wailed its complaint at her. She glanced over and offered a vague gesture−could have meant anything.
“That lady ran a red light!” I exclaimed.
“That’s wrong!” The Boy remarked. “She should be arrested and put in jail.”
Here was my chance. I thought of the Baby in the Back Seat. I thought of Barbara. Then I said, “Well, maybe she was rushing to the hospital with her sick child. Or maybe she was distracted and just didn’t realize what she was doing. We don’t know, do we?”
“No.” he said. “Maybe…maybe there’s a fire.”
“Right. Maybe she’s rushing to help someone. We just don’t know. She probably shouldn’t go to jail,” I said. “It’s very dangerous to run a red light−she needs to be careful. But we’re safe and no one got hurt. That’s important.”
We don’t want the world to take advantage of us or Barbara or anyone who has a big and forgiving heart. But couldn’t we all use a break from time to time? I’ve had a baby in the back seat before, crying nonstop, needing attention. I know what it’s like to have distractions and not be thinking on my feet.
Thank you to anyone who has given me the benefit of the doubt and forgiven me for forgetting something or making a mistake. If I didn’t say what I should have said or missed an opportunity to listen well, I’m very sorry. Thank you for letting it go.
Thank you, Barbara. I probably tested your character every other day.
Thank You, Lord, for putting these reminders in my own life.
Like this post from Shalee’s Diner. She reminded me of that story in O magazine. Her thoughts reminded me of my lessons-in-living from Barbara. What Barbara called “benefit of the doubt,” Shalee calls “perspective.”
I hope you take time to read Shalee’s post. She poetically prays for a heart that gives people the benefit of the doubt, that gets some perspective−even, perhaps, a bit of God’s perspective.
We don’t know the reasons behind people’s actions. We don’t know why they do what they do.
But He does.
We can trust Him to know and give us grace−and allow us to give others grace in return.
The world needs more people to learn this lesson. Even if everyone applied this lesson just 50% of the time, it would go a long way.
I am trying to give people the benefit of the doubt more often and hopefully they will in turn do the same for me.
Thanks for your words of wisdom!
anordinarymom: I thought later I should have added Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird into this post. His character reminds us to walk in other people’s shoes; another way of thinking about perspective.
A little situational irony in my life today…after posting this, I picked up the kids from school. At a 4-way stop I came to a complete stop–or I thought I did?–and believed myself to be the next person. Next thing I know, as I turn, the guy to my left takes off anyway and drives right up to my van, coming within inches of scraping me, as if to intimidate me as I turned. I made eye contact, confused as to why he was forging ahead. When I do, I see that he’s gesturing *clearly*, not vaguely, his eyebrows scrunched together, obviously shouting expletives at me! Maybe I didn’t have my turn signal on or something, but I certainly wasn’t *trying* to be first or beat him to it. I didn’t purposefully leave off my turn signal (I think it was on, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt that I might have left it off). He seemed very angry.
He must have had a very bad day, right? He must have had an argument with his wife. Or maybe he broke his toe at a work site or bit his tongue while eating a Subway sandwich at lunch.
Elite VAs says
Wow, what a great blog! We all need a reminder like this at times.
We never know what’s going on in other’s lives. We haven’t “walked in their shoes.” And sometimes we forget that we’ve had bad days too.
Some might say that giving people the benefit of the doubt is nothing but looking at the world with rose-colored glasses. But I prefer to think that it’s actually a way of showing our humanness – a way of giving back a little of what’s been given to us.
Great words to live by, Ann, thanks!
The benefit of the doubt has to be – given.
And who better to learn that from than the One who loved the world this way: He gave His only Son.
Heather L. says
Thank you for posting this. I am a forgiver just like Barbara and I’ve often been told that I am too nice for my own good. I don’t believe this to be true. I don’t let people walk all over me, but I give them the benefit of the doubt because that’s what I would want. Life is too short to dwell on someone who cuts us off in traffic or who is rude. I won’t let them ruin my day. I also don’t beleive in doing something mean to someone who did something mean (or what I thought was mean) to me. Why would I want to sink to that level? If we all tried to be better people, this would be an even better world.
Heather: I love reading your response. You have a great post right here. It reminds me a little bit of a piece I read over at Antique Mommy, called “Do It Anyway.” I think you live it out well in your life, based on what you’ve said here.