Years and years ago, I was complaining to a wise friend about the struggles I faced due to my upbringing and he looked at me and, in true wise-friend style, said, “You know, Leah, one of the things I’ve learned in life is that everyone is just doing the best they can at the moment. Now that’s not to say that people are perfect and don’t make mistakes that hurt others. But when looking at the way people behave, try to remember that everyone is just doing the best they can with what they know right now.” Being non-confrontational, I assented in the moment, but inside I was steaming. I did not want to entertain the idea that my parents had done their best because I didn’t know where all the anger and resentment and the blame for my own deficiencies would go if I made room for grace. The seed for said grace was planted that day, though, even though I resisted it.
Skip the intervening years between then and now and fast-forward through all the life lessons I’ve learned and today you’ll find me irritating others with the same bit of wisdom that once rankled me. After years of observing healthy changes in people like my parents, my friends, my husband, and my family along with years of inflicting my own imperfections on the world at large and continuing to grow despite my tendency towards selfishness and self-sabotage, I believe that everyone really is doing the best they can with what they know at this moment and that their best gets better. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s best is ‘good’ or ‘moral’ or ‘harmless.’ It simply means that most people* are doing all they know to do and when they know better (and are mentally and emotionally able to do so) they will do better. It’s a somewhat radical concept that might seem objectionable when you turn your mind to the people in your life who behave like complete asshats. But I’ve discovered that extending grace to people for where they are (or were) in their journeys is a happier, more peaceful way to live than chewing on perpetual resentment and judgment like an old tasteless piece of gum you cannot bring yourself to spit out.
Unexpectedly, this belief that others are doing their best has also given me the freedom to move away from destructive people and relationships without as much resentment or guilt as I would have once been burdened by. I have a long way to go before I am my future best, but I have found it easier to say (mostly internally), ‘I accept that the way you are behaving right now is your best at the moment. However, I cannot welcome you in my life. There was a time when I would have allowed you to wreak havoc on my life and allowed myself to become emotionally, mentally, and spiritually depleted trying to take care of you, but I know better now. My best now is to walk away and let you be.” Grace is not a free pass by which people can enter into our lives and do whatever they like without consequences, but it does allow for peace in the parting and hope that the story is not yet finished.
Living by the belief that people are doing the best they can right now releases me from the burden of being an expectations-holder. People get heavy when I stand there trying to hold them up to my (double) standards. It allows me to be in relationships with real people rather than with ideas of who people should/could/would be. It keeps me from berating myself for my mistakes and failures because the grace I extend to others for their journeys is also extended to me for mine. It heals wounds like the ones I felt from my childhood and opens the door to restored relationships. But it also requires a lot from me. It requires trusting that the people I encounter in life are good-at-heart kind of people who want to and will keep growing and changing for the better. It requires faith that lessons will be taught when the person in need of them is ready and able to receive them. And it requires scads of humility–remembering I am nowhere near the pinnacle of human achievement and I really know so little about life. The day I realized that I probably would have been the same kind of parent my own parents were if I had walked their journeys was one of the most humbling days of my life. And it was that humility that finally caused the seed of grace planted by my wise friend to grow. I know some might say it is a ridiculous way to believe and live, but it serves my wise friend and me pretty darn well.
*Of course, there are the psychopaths and sociopaths that are the odd ones out and who really don’t give a hoot what they do, but even then an argument could be made that the fatal flaw is their mental illness rather than the choices borne from the mental illness.