See, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.Matthew 10:16
I decided a long time ago to believe the best of people. It is a matter of innocence, So it is difficult to defend. Even in Our Lord’s advice quoted above, the innocence of doves must be balanced by the wisdom of serpents. To always be open to the good can become extreme.
In Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Predjudice, for example, Mr. Bennet fondly warns his eldest daughter Jane about how alike she and her betrothed are:
You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous that you will always exceed your income.
While it is a nice habit to believe the best, the fact remains that not everyone means the best. How can we balance these two principles? Here is a list of do’s and don’t’s.
DO assume people have better motives than they seem. Until you can see their side, you can’t understand what’s right and wrong, even in your own position. Be open to the fact that they may know something you don’t, and that affects their actions. This will prevent you from taking offense where none was intended.
DO NOT stop trying to see their side of things. If you can’t understand it, keep trying. If they are as bad as they seem, you will find out. If they are better, then you will learn from them, and you will have a new ally.
DO assume people are smarter than they sound. Until someone has a lot of experience expressing themselves to opposition, their thoughts don’t usually come out quite right. Most of us know this about ourselves. Even after much experience is gained, there are so many ways to misunderstand each other. Just as you need those of good will to interpret your words, assume others do as well. This will prevent you from dismissing an important idea out of contempt for the way it is expressed.
DO NOT be swayed because something sounds good. Make sure you are convinced before you allow an idea to take hold of you. Whether something sounds good or bad, let your mind work. Never be pressured into accepting something out of embarrassment, fear, or guilt.
DO speak your mind before you explode. Have faith that your viewpoint is worth listening to. Don’t demand perfection in your own thoughts and feelings. It would be nice to completely trust yourself in this way, but you can’t let fear hold you back. Many others spew their ideas completely entangled in emotions. Even such tainted ideas will get farther than a well-reasoned position that is never voiced. And if you wait too long, you’ll be stuck in resentment.
DO NOT ignore someone because their words are emotional. When someone is passionate, some of us feel embarrassed or contemptuous of the idea. Emotions, however, are not bad. They can make mistakes, but when they are well-trained, they provide weight and integrity that are beyond price.
DO be kind. True kindness is a discipline, a determination to treat each person, even those who seem to be your enemies, with dignity. It can be difficult to bring this to each interaction, but kindness is the atmosphere of openness and respect that allows the truth of each person’s position to come out. It is an important ingredient that makes a difficult situation into a beautiful one.
DO NOT be afraid to inflict emotional pain when necessary. I amused my family and friends recently by telling them I was practicing being “mean”. It is an ongoing project, but basically it means that I have to practice being ok with causing emotional pain. Before, my “kindness” was motivated by fear rather than by determination to see the good. During my practice, I have witnessed, again and again, the good results of causing temporary pain in order to bring about a good. For me, it is a matter of trusting God, offering Him my fear, and praying that Our Lady guide any pain I cause or receive for the greater good.