On assuming the best
Maybe everything he told me was a lie. Maybe he hadn’t been living in a shelter, didn’t just get that job, hasn’t been HIV positive since 1994. Maybe his name wasn’t even Robert. Maybe he sold the soap and detergent I bought him to buy cigarettes, alcohol, drugs. But maybe not.
It was in that moment last weekend, having just parked my bike, ready to head into the cathedral for Mass, that I was confronted by this man, Robert, and subsequently by the perplexing dilemma I’m still left with. “I’m not asking for money,” he began. All he wanted was some toiletries from the Rite Aid two blocks away. The Women’s March was in full swing, and cops were stationed on nearly every corner. As I took him in, with his shirt and tie and Burger King hat, with his missing teeth and kind smile, I wrestled. Is his story true? Who knows. Do I feel safe? Yes. So, we walked the three blocks to the Rite Aid together. I coughed, he asked how I was feeling, I told him about my trip to Mexico. He told me about the job he’d just gotten at the hookah bar. About being turned away by the shelter. About looking older than he was. At Rite Aid, he made his choices, I paid, and we parted ways. And as I watched him walk away, I wondered. I weighed his story in my mind and started to see the ways it didn’t quite add up. I thought of his well-rehearsed speech. I imagined how that could have gone differently, how it could have gone wrong. But it didn’t.
Maybe everything told me was a lie. But was it a loss? Was it a loss for me to shake his hand, smile, call him by name? Walk side by side in the streets of Philly, shop together, buy $30 worth of groceries, $30 I certainly could do without? This all has brought me to something I’ve long pondered: assuming the best of the other.
Call me naïve, or ignorant, or idealistic, but I would much rather assume the best of someone than the worst. This principle doesn’t always play out in such striking ways; usually, it’s rather mundane. It’s the email I’ve been waiting days for, the friend who forgot our plans, the cashier who snaps. How quick I often am to jump to conclusions, to play the cynic. Well, clearly he can’t be bothered to respond. Well, I guess I must not be that important to her. Well, too bad he never learned about customer service. How poisonous! How dreadful to suffer under those pessimistic assumptions, to fall victim to my own susceptibility to negativity. Usually they’re simple things, and they pass quickly, but that negative tendency does add up. Examining those knee-jerk reactions of mine says a lot.
So, what does it mean to assume the best? It’s simple, really. All it takes is choosing to see the good. It’s in giving the benefit of the doubt, exercising my imagination, granting my neighbor great trust and optimism. Well, I know it’s been a while, but I’m sure he’s swamped with work—I’ll reach out again with a friendly reminder. Well, she’s been really suffering lately—I’ll be quick to forgive her. Well, he must be having a rough day—I’ll respond with a smile. Sometimes it seems to take heroic effort to make these small acts of the will, like fighting a current to return to shore. But each time I do, whether or not my optimistic assumptions are true, I find that my joy only grows. That my peace is not disturbed. That I start to be gentler with others and, in turn, with myself.
To all the Roberts of the world: I assume the best of you. I assume that you have suffered, that you’re lonely, that you really are in need. I won’t always buy you groceries; in fact, I usually won’t. But I will look you in the eye and smile, hopefully learn your name and listen to your story. I will choose to see the good in you. I will assume the best.