In this world of strum and drang, where rockets empty kindergartens, and where advertisers have found a way to employ Instagram to their benefit, it still behooves us to be accountable for our individual behavior. In short, we are not off the hook, despite social goings on that flood us, from maintaining proper civility.
“Proper civility,” in turn, has many components, the most important of which is judging others favorably. Not only do we lack the wisdom to truly assess what is happening in the totality of the private and public lives of others, but we ought not to want to make such assessments.
In my circumstances, that means, for instance, that if one of my girls wants to wear makeup, even though I don’t even lacquer my nails, she is not a bad seed. Rather, she is a bud seeking to healthfully differentiate herself from her gender-similar parent. She’s going through her adolescent development healthfully.
Likewise, my son, who elected to attend the hesder yeshiva located at the boarder of our Holy Land and Lebanon, rather than to learn in a school in our hometown, ought not to be considered a youth fleeing from his familial sanctuary, but one running toward his emerging religious identity. That child, who holds dear the sanctity of life, would, without hesitation, make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our land (has v’shalom, his choices should never narrow to that end). There’s so much about which to be proud.
Similarly, another son, the one who sometimes sits quietly on our sofa during family meetings, the one who might be viewed, under unfavorable appraisal, as a nonparticipant, is actually my family’s most reasonable associate. That dear one measures his words and often reminds the rest of us to stay the derech by not reacting too much or for too long to any good or bad news we receive. His emunah is enviable.
As well, my family’s oldest child, fair of mind, plus fruit-looped in humor, is no upstart, but is a respectful young adult who cares enough to carefully point out that when families, mine included, move forward, they ought to do so without socially or psychologically sacrificing their children. Lucky will be the administration under whose auspices that daughter teaches when she finishes her degree.
My children were raised to be aware of human nuance and to articulate their sentiments accordingly. By being in touch with and by being able to speak about their feelings, those youths are empowered souls that ought to be respected and possibly emulated. They are not cheeky. They are not full of fluff. I need to look at them kindly and gratefully.
As per my husband, good ‘ole Computer Cowboy, it behooves me, in that relationship, too, to see the good and to believe, to truly deem, his intentions are good, or, in the least, are neutral. For instance, when my man buys me flowers, it’s better to think “how thoughtful,” than “why not the yellow ones.” When he surprises me and cooks the Shabbat soup, it’s better to think “what a kindness” than “he forgot to use the leftover carrots.” There’s no reason that someone with whom I’ve had the zehut to live for multiple decades, b’ayin tova, would trying to be anything but benevolent in my direction.
What holds true for family holds true for other interpersonal exchanges. Whereas a minority of folks cheats or otherwise misuses their relational resources, most individuals do not think about and certainly do not actualize malevolent behaviors. In short, if something in an interaction seems off, it’s probably not personal, i.e. probably not directed toward us.
Granted, local drivers can be maddening. Yet, it is vital to bestow the benefit of the doubt on each of them (and to simultaneously drive defensively). Some wheelers are actually rushing off to medical care. Some drivers are law enforcement agents chasing villains. Some roaders are persons scurrying to places of work such as banks or government offices, where the rest of us would be miffed if the staff failed to show up. I’m not advocating hazardous driving practices. I am, however, advocating compassion.
On checkout lines, too, empathy can be put into play. Maybe the mom who scoots her cart in front of ours has a kid with a loaded diaper. The fellow who reaches in front of us for the last low-priced package of greens might have a medical condition that mandates such food as well as a fixed income. The cashier who closes her counter just as we approach might have needed an impromptu bathroom break. It’s far better that she meet her alimentary canal’s needs and not handle our produce with virus-laden hands than the opposite.
When a stranger takes our seats at schul, do we rant or praise G-d that another neshemah is joining us for prayer? When someone litters in front of our homes, do we curse their seeming inconsideration, or do we notice the elderly person with whom they are walking? When someone domineers conversation at a simcha, do we wrap ourselves with resentment or do we breath, grateful that when we leave the party we won’t be facing the chronic woes of that other person?
It’s so much easier to frown at nail polish, to complain about a school’s location, to resent a child that intentionally skips turns, and to silence a young adult that tries to point out blind spots, than it is to seek the good in other persons and to learn from it once it is found. Analogously, it is easier to curse “creative” drivers, to lament marketplace practices, and to laud moral supremacy over strangers than to see people as messengers meant to mirror our own shortcomings.
Judging favorably is an important element of proper civility. It keeps us social and causes us to reach toward better versions of ourselves. If we strive toward this way of existing in the world, in the least, we add to peace, and, at most, we better ourselves.