I have a heartbreaking story that ultimately changed the way I looked at the world forever. My cousin whom I loved dearly passed away from cancer at the young age of sixteen. Obviously very tragic and heartbreaking, but I extracted one of the most important lessons of my life on the day before his passing. Because his health was deteriorating he wanted to go to this palliative care home so he wouldn’t pass away at his home. My mother and I were over at his house with his mother (my aunt) and his sister (my other cousin). In the morning when we woke up we had to get him in the car so my aunt and his sister could take him to the palliative care centre.

My mother and I were driving on the highway behind their vehicle and as this was occurring I can remember thinking this has to be the worst day of my life. I knew, and so did everyone involved, that we were driving away from their home to never return with him again, truly a heartbreaking experience. But as we were driving I was looking at all the cars on the highway. I can remember thinking that these people have no idea how horrific of a day we were having. All these cars passing by had no idea what tragedy was occurring in my family. I started to think about how I also have no idea what is happening in these other cars. A fairly innocuous and self-evident thought, we aren’t other people and we don’t know what they are going through. But the reality is, I very rarely lived that way.

I can find myself becoming so short tempered and angry at people in the world, because I perceive them as being rude or inconsiderate. But maybe they are having a day as bad as the one my family was having. Maybe I shouldn’t be judgmental not because there truly is no benefit to being worked up by other people’s actions, I can’t control others and I have to be acutely aware that the only person being harmed by my judgment of others is myself, but more to the point that the world would actually be a better place if I didn’t cast my judgment. Suppose I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, I would truly be able to be understanding and empathetic to the asshole that cuts me off in traffic, or the person who doesn’t hold the door open for me.

I came to the stark realization that my own judgment and absence of giving people the benefit of the doubt stems from this erroneous concept that I actually have an idea of what is going on. The truth is, we have no idea what people are going through. People who behave in a rude or inconsiderate manner might be going through something far worse than I could ever envision. And this expectation I have that people should constantly be behaving in a kind and considerate manner is absurd, because it implies that I expect everyone to have the utmost ability to regulate emotion. People are fallible, and people can easily find themselves in a situation that is way above their emotional pay grade. When I hear of people doing horrible things now, or even of people that I previously disliked based upon their behaviours and actions, I’ve attempted to replace that with compassion. Nobody wants to be an angry, miserable, and rude person. Most, if not all of the time, these are people that are suffering deeply.

This isn’t to excuse people of their mistakes or their awful attitudes and conduct. This is to give myself peace of mind. It’s easy to see all the bad in the world and develop a disdain towards people or situations. But humbling myself by actually understanding that I truly have no idea of the magnitude of suffering behind the mask of another person allows me to see the good in the world. Giving people the benefit of the doubt frees me from my own negativity and anger. I will never know what’s going on in a stranger’s life, I barely even know what’s going on in my own inner dialogue, but I do know now that people deserve compassion. People deserve kindness whether they express it to others or not, because kindness ultimately is our only shot at granting them the impetus to reflect on themselves and change. If I’m an angry, bitter, and mean person, and I act that way, and everyone responds with malice towards me, then why would I change? I would feel reaffirmed that everyone is deserving of my wrath. But a response of kindness just might be enough to allow that person to reflect on their own actions, to recognize they are behaving incorrectly, and to change going forward. Forgiveness doesn’t have to take place for things that occurred in the past, I can actively make the choice to forgive people of their future transgressions and treat them in a manner which might actually prevent these things from happening.

  • Jack A. Bingham

Author of Obsessive-Compulsive Dramatic: My Fight Against OCD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Addiction