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.