We Do The Best We Can

My Mom and Dad separated when I was four or five. They divorced several years later. It was a long time ago but, as I remember, my sister and I saw Dad every other weekend when we were in elementary school, and with less frequency when we were in high school. I’m glad he was part of our lives … but I’m also glad he wasn’t a bigger part of our lives. 

My Dad wasn’t a bad guy. He was smart and did important work. As a professor at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, he worked on the development of penicillin during WWII. He wrote text books on the use of antibiotics and was well respected by his students and peers. He was a good athlete, running track at Columbia where he got his PhD. He valued hard work, putting in long, grueling days improving a property he had purchased as a family retreat. His colleagues and friends knew him to be thoughtful and generous.

When he was with my sister and me there were several phrases he liked to use. When we’d leave to go somewhere he’d say, “We are off in a cloud of heifer dust.” When someone would say something that didn’t make a lot of sense he’d say, “They put the em-PHASIS on the wrong syl-ABBLE.” But there’s something else he said that wasn’t cute or funny. I can’t remember a visit with him when at some point he didn’t say, “People are no damn good.”

He might say it after hearing a news story on the radio about someone doing something illegal, or when someone passed us recklessly on the highway. I didn’t know Dad well enough to know if this was really his initial assumption about people or not, but I suspect it was.

An email I received earlier today from a ProfitTips reader reminded me of my Dad’s words. The reader had just moved and described his experience trying to join an ag organization in his new county. He summarized it by writing, “Let’s just say my presence at meetings was not welcome.”

I am struck at how many people seem to share my Dad’s philosophy, living in suspicion that anyone who isn’t already in the inner circle is a threat and up to no good. I think if you look for the worst in people, you are likely to find it. But I also think that when you start by looking for the best in people, you are likely to find that too.

I don’t think my Dad, or anyone else who shares his attitude, is a “bad person.” Just like the rest of us, given who he was and the pressures he was under, my Dad did the best he could. I’ve come to believe that we are all doing the best we can. Unfortunately, sometimes the best we can do isn’t very good. It doesn’t excuse bad things people may say or do, but it does help explain them.

Beginning with the assumption that people are doing the best they can doesn’t mean that you should roll over and accept abuse. Even if bad behavior is the best someone can do, they should still be held accountable for it. But starting with the assumption that people are doing the best they can fosters empathy. That’s the gateway to deeper trust, stronger relationships and happier lives.


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  1. Very nice Story Dave

    Thanks for sharing inner thoughts

    Not always the easiest.

    But I think it really gets and holds folks attention !!

    Well Done


    I have been to a few of the summer tours and meetings

    And really some of the best I have seen in the AG Industry


    1. Thanks for your comment.
      I’ve been thinking about the hand we are dealt and the decisions we make…or think we make. I was trying to imagine who I might have become and what I might be doing now had not events unfolded the way they did … I have a hard time imagining another life … I’m pretty darn happy with the one I wound up with. Some of the changes in course were out of my control (e.g. my Dad’s decisions). Looking back at the decisions I made at critical points in my life, I can’t think of one I would change. Kathy and I were talking about this yesterday…it’s not that we always made the best decisions…but once we committed to a decision, we took steps to make sure it was the right one.


      1. Good morning Dave, I am a little late to the party here, par for the course. It appears to me that some people like yourself and I think myself, make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in. For me this seems to open doors to greater places. Thanks for the thoughtful insight and have a great day, Brett


  2. A reporter approached Einstein and asked the question: “If you could ask the universe one question, what would you ask?” Albert, as if he had been waiting for someone to ask just this question, answered instantly: “Is the universe friendly?”

    It seems there are 3 answers – yes, no, neutral. And the answer defines one’s life. And one can always change their answer.

    There was a part of my life when, in hind site, I was answering with a solid ‘No!’. It was how I was trained by much of my culture and all I knew. Then I started to change. I wasn’t satisfied with the results I was getting with that answer.

    Now, as I seem to be shifting more and more deeply into the practice of answering ‘Yes!’ That seems to be what I experience. This has been a slow transformation for me since I seem to be a slow learner, and have a lot to un-learn and then imagine what a friendly universe would look like and how I might engage in it.

    Having just turned 70, this is one of the changes and shifts I am most happy about!

    Kind of like you are saying, Dave. Thanks for the stimulating story.


  3. Thank you for this thoughtful piece. I suspect we have all struggled with these issues of attitude and behavior at one time or another. For me, reading “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout was very helpful. One thing I learned is that 4% of the population —a striking 1 in 25— has traits associated with a lack of conscience. (I am not suggesting that your dad was a sociopath.) I think you are correct: everyone is probably doing the best they can, even sociopaths. My point is that statistically speaking we are frequently confronted by people who have personality or mental problems. Knowing that fact might make it easier to recognize them and perhaps also to have empathy for them. We humans are imperfect, some more so than others.


  4. We choose to live in abundance or scarcity. Many of our choices are from our inner fear of loss and or failure.
    Thanks Dave. I see you and Robin have chosen the abundant side.
    Your Friend, John


  5. Would like to her from your sister, and her take on this.


  6. Thanks for your thoughts. Your reflections concerning your father seems heartfelt from deep within. Thanks for sharing and for the advice to always look for the best and give that a try before giving up on someone. Still reflect a lot on your session here in Shelby at the Next generation conference we helped host. Butch Gillespie http://www.gillespieshowcattle.com


  7. Thank you for sharing, speaks volumes to many. God is Good!


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