How many times have you been in situations where you made a snap judgement about someone, maybe cursed them under your breath, and extrapolated from that one interaction what a terrible human being they must be. For me, it’s most often when I’m driving, and someone cuts me up trying to carve their way through the traffic.
Now—be honest—how many times have you done something similar? And I bet, as you’re thinking about it, you’re also rationalising them away, ” yes, I was speeding, but I was in a hurry because I hate being late for an appointment…”.
It’s our natural default; since our life is all about us, we can’t but help to think that everything revolves around our view of the world. We’re doing our best, while others are unthinking.
David Foster Wallace spoke about this in his famous “This is Water” speech:
…Thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
Why assume the best in ourselves but the worst in others? Consider what Epictetus said:
“Until you know their reasons, how do you know whether they have acted wrongly?”
We know our own story and character, we know we don’t go out of our way to hurt people; there was a logic to our action in those situations. If you think about it, not giving others the same respect reveals quite a negative view of humanity in ourselves.
Why not give others the benefit of the doubt? Either way, what good comes of you getting angry or frustrated about what they did? You can no longer change it. Instead, remain calm, assume the best. If you’re going to make assumptions and judge someone without all the facts, then why not judge them generously?
Better, why judge at all?
As we are frequently reminded by the Stoics, suspend judgement:
It is not things themselves that upset us but our judgements about these things