The Benefit of Doubt – The Importance of Knowing the Rest of the Story
I cannot speak for anyone else but I find it very easy to rush to judgment. I do it all the time. (There are times when our first reaction is correct. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book1 on just that topic. What I’m writing about here is something different.) I tend to make quick assessments of people, their motivations, their morality, and their character, and I do so with very little information. I am finding it harder and harder to justify this. The more I learn, the more obvious it becomes that I need to grow in patience and wisdom. I need to be quick to listen and slow to anger – slow to judge. It is rare that I will encounter someone who treats me poorly where I can truly know that person’s heart and background in our brief interaction. This is something I am in the process of learning. Here are a few examples, including personal experiences, pop culture observations, and news’ stories, that are helping me on my way.
“There’s no crying in baseball!”
Recently, a video of what appeared to be a grown man refusing to give a foul ball to a young baseball fan went viral. Twitter responded as only Twitter can – with total, over-the-top hysterics. This man became famous for being the worst person in the world. Of all time. How could a grown man be so selfish and mean? How could he deny this child a baseball? Why did he hate everything that we value in life? Maybe I am misrepresenting some of the reactions to this video just a little, in honor of the Twitter-hyperbolic spirit. The truth of the matter is, he was vilified. He was enemy number one according to Twitter – supplanting President Donald Trump for a few inglorious hours.
Not surprisingly, all that outrage and all that fury were based on incomplete information. The real story was significantly different than the original short video implied. The true story is that the man had caught multiple foul balls that game and given them to numerous children, including the child in the video that he seemed to reject. He had gone out of his way to be nice and generous to those kids, yet one out-of-context moment shows up on Twitter, and the rest of the story is irrelevant to our outrage prone society.
“Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
One of my favorite sitcoms of the past 20 years is Malcolm in the Middle. The show is centered on a dysfunctional but loving family where the father is a bit of a lunatic and the mother is seemingly all-knowing most of the time. One specific episode stands out when dealing with the various personality dynamics.
Lois (the mother) is involved in a car accident. The cop that witnessed the accident and writes her a ticket previously had a negative interaction with her in the convenience store where she works. She believes he is corrupt and out to get her because she is positive that she did nothing wrong. She swears she did not violate any laws of the road and the accident was caused by another careless driver. That is, until security footage of the accident turns up. Her family is stunned. Lois is NEVER wrong. Even after seeing the footage, she refuses to accept it. She says, “The tape is wrong.” Her family, with her husband Hal doing most of the pleading, finally convince her that it is okay to admit that she messed up. Eventually, she gives in and decides to throw in the towel. The boys, being the hard to handle sorts, love this because they finally have something they can hold over her.
The episode could have ended there and it would have been great. It had plenty of laughs and a great resolution. There was just one problem. A coworker had access to another security camera which showed a different angle of the accident, and it proves that the other driver was at fault. The family, unbeknownst to Lois, decides to destroy the tape and never speak of it again because they cannot imagine what this news will do to Lois or how that knowledge of her innocence will affect them. She will become more powerful than ever and that is too much for any of them to contemplate.
Life is complex. Things are not always what they appear. Though humorous, this example shows that we rarely have all the facts. We don’t see all the angles.
“Listen to the storyline, chapter written in another time…”
A short while back, I was discussing my idea for this article with my wife, and she told me a story that fit perfectly with my theme. My wife is a 7th grade English teacher. A few years back, she had a student who was a class clown. He would be disruptive, drawing attention to himself during instructional time. He would talk, chatter, and engage with other students with no problems. One day, he had to have a conversation with my wife, and he stammered and stuttered. Her initial reaction was that it was being done as a joke to elicit a laugh from others. Wisely, she did not discipline or even address the stuttering. A short time later, while discussing this student with a coworker, she was informed that he always struggled when speaking to teachers. It was an anxiety issue. My wife, by showing patience with this child, saved herself and the student embarrassment. She also did not add another layer of anxiety to this student who clearly struggled when speaking to people in authority.
Our patience with others is more important than we sometimes realize. Rushing to judgment can have massive negative ramifications on others. Before reaching any conclusions about the people around us, we need to listen and learn to find out what is truly going on in their lives. Everybody has a storyline. We need to do our best to understand it.
“Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”
This will likely be the most controversial example. For what it’s worth, this is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of Donald Trump. But I think it is an example that shows how valuable it is for us to know the facts before we judge.
Last year, President Trump met with Japan’s Prime Minister. At a certain point during their visit, they fed fish at the Koi pond. Video of the fish feeding appeared online and it seemed to show that Trump got impatient with feeding the fish with the small spoon and decided to just dump the entire box of fish food into the pond. Of course, the media ran wild with this story. Clearly, this video was just one more example that Donald Trump is a rude, impatient, boorish human being. All those things very well could be true, but this incident did not prove it one way or another.
In reality, the first video released and widely distributed by the media, obscured the Prime Minister. Another video surfaced a short time later that did not crop out the PM and it showed that Trump was only following the lead of his host. PM Abe dumped his fish food in first and Trump followed his example.2
Again, this doesn’t say anything about who Trump is or isn’t, but it does say something about how preconceptions affect the way we judge events. For those that are anti-Trump, the first video was proof of all they believed about him. For those that are anti-media, the fact that the first video had been altered and then widely touted only served to confirm their worst fears about fake news. For those of us that are doing our best to know the truth, this entire event was further confirmation that it is becoming increasingly difficult to really know anything. And that makes caution, patience, and taking a wait-and-see approach the wisest course of action.
“I will never understand people. They’re the worst.”
I was recently in a weight loss competition at work. There were 13 competitors with each of us paying a $25 entrance fee. The winner would take home the entire amount. $325. The man running the competition had won the previous round. He was also competing this time as well. From the beginning, something felt off to me. I was skeptical about having the person in charge be a competitor as well. I was not happy with the level of communication and openness. It seemed that things were not as transparent as they needed to be.
Then, I received a few emails from the man in charge and it appeared that he was trying to figure out a way to either disqualify me or to at least keep me from winning. He never accused me of breaking a rule but he did seem to imply it. Which rule, I have no idea because the rules were never explained in detail. I talked to my wife and some friends about it. From my point of view, I thought it all smelled rotten and I was bracing myself for a confrontation at the end of the competition.
The confrontation never happened. Before the competition ended, I reached out to him to get some clarification on a few key points and he responded quickly and openly. It also became clear that his communications with me were more about encouraging me to finish strong than anything else. It all came down to miscommunication. He could have been more clear in how he worded things and I could have been less distrustful of his motives. I could have made a big fuss about the whole thing, based on inaccurate perception, and it would have caused a rift between us. In the end, the competition ran smoothly and I lost a lot of weight. I also learned (again) that I need to look for the best in people instead of assuming the worst.
As with most things I write, much of it is directed internally. I struggle in this area. I am quick to judge. I tend to think the worst of people until they prove me wrong. I can no longer support that view of the world. It is unhealthy and uncharitable. I am slowly learning to look for the storyline in others’ lives, to be more patient and loving when dealing with difficult people and situations, and to see the best in everyone I encounter.
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4 thoughts on “The Benefit of Doubt – The Importance of Knowing the Rest of the Story”
I appreciate your thoughts and insights. So very true. This is an area we all can and should grow in. Thanks so much.
I love this! I’m afraid you have inherited the tendency for quick judgment from your mother.
This is exceptional. I wish all of our articles had huge audiences, but this needs to be read and heeded by everyone, me included.
This remains one of the really practical things you have written.