I think most if not all of us have experienced a hit to our mental health over the past few months. It’s hard not to think negatively in a time when disasters are dropping one after another, we have been isolated from others, and we’ve been at home with our social media more often than we might otherwise be. It is also becoming easier and easier to distrust others as we read the news, inundated with stories highlighting the volatile flaws of human nature and generating fear of interacting with others during this highly contagious pandemic.
I have noticed this downcast trend not only among my family, friends, and coworkers but also among LDS Living readers with a larger-than-usual number of negative, critical, or unkindly worded messages in response to some of our content. As I have thought about why this might be, a question has crossed my mind a few times. What would it be like if we all assumed the best of others?
Now, I am by no means suggesting we should ignore abusive or manipulative behavior or a feeling of unease. I’m talking about what if in our everyday interactions online or in person, we didn’t assign only negative motives to others and positive motives only to ourselves? What if we didn’t assume the worst of our friends, families, and community members?
I love this quote by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf from his April 2017 general conference talk in which he shared a parable about the Sad, Mad, and Glad sisters. He said,
When someone opposes or disagrees with us, it’s tempting to assume that there must be something wrong with them. And from there it’s a small step to attach the worst of motives to their words and actions. Of course, we must always stand for what is right, and there are times when we must raise our voices for that cause. However, when we do so with anger or hate in our hearts—when we lash out at others to hurt, shame, or silence them—chances are we are not doing so in righteousness (“Three Sisters,” April 2017 general conference).
Communicating with others can be difficult to begin with, but when you throw in a pandemic that leads to most conversations between friends, coworkers, and family members happening through messages or phone calls, it becomes even harder. We write differently than we speak, and we depend a lot on other cues like body language, voice inflection, and tone to interpret a person’s meaning. Without these regular interactions, it can be all too easy to interpret others’ words and assume a meaning that doesn’t exist.
We all make dozens of assumptions about other people every day based on our own feelings and experiences. And while giving others the benefit of the doubt might seem like it is doing other people a kindness, this practice can actually be just as helpful to our own mental and spiritual health—negative interpretation can be emotionally exhausting and isolating. Letting that go can increase our feelings of love and discipleship even in a time of concern and stress.
I believe that if we all spent a little more time looking for and assuming the good of those we meet, from the grocery store clerk to our social media friends, our world will look a little brighter and we would all feel a little more love for ourselves and others.
Marvin J. Ashton shared this thought almost 30 years ago, but I believe it is still applicable today:
Perhaps the greatest charity comes when we are kind to each other, when we don’t judge or categorize someone else, when we simply give each other the benefit of the doubt or remain quiet. Charity is accepting someone’s differences, weaknesses, and shortcomings; having patience with someone who has let us down; or resisting the impulse to become offended when someone doesn’t handle something the way we might have hoped. Charity is refusing to take advantage of another’s weakness and being willing to forgive someone who has hurt us. Charity is expecting the best of each other.
He then adds,
None of us need one more person bashing or pointing out where we have failed or fallen short. Most of us are already well aware of the areas in which we are weak. What each of us does need is family, friends, employers, and brothers and sisters who support us, who have the patience to teach us, who believe in us, and who believe we’re trying to do the best we can, in spite of our weaknesses (“The Tongue Can Be a Sharp Sword,” April 1992 general conference).
We are all under considerable amounts of stress and pressure right now, and I believe it’s more important than ever to look for ways to cheer others on and see others the way Christ sees them—to learn how to love one another. We know what our own motives are and that we are doing our best, so why not believe the same of others? I’ve been surprised how many disagreements or misunderstandings in my family, work, church, and neighborhood relationships have been the result of one of us assuming the other is trying to make things harder when really, we have the same goal. We all handle frustration, anxiety, pain, fear, and disaster differently, and if we can assume that we are all trying our best and make allowances for others the way we would like them to make them for us, it will make our actions kinder and in turn help others be happier as well. After all, aren’t we all working toward that common goal? I conclude with something Elder Uchtdorf said in another talk 10 years ago,
As the Lord is patient with us, let us be patient with those we serve. Understand that they, like us, are imperfect. They, like us, make mistakes. They, like us, want others to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Never give up on anyone. And that includes not giving up on yourself (“Continue in Patience,” April 2010 general conference).