One day, when my son got off the school bus, he was all out of sorts. I don’t remember what the issue was, only that he was not his normal self. There was a mom, Jenny, who picked up her daughter at the same stop. When she saw the state my son was in she said:
Everybody’s working on something.
Her words have stayed with me ever since. When someone in the checkout line at Target is cranky, cuts me off in traffic, or says something rude, I think of this statement and wonder–what is that person working on? Are they experiencing something really hard to deal with right now? Thinking about it in this way gives me a chance to pause and find a bit of compassion. Everybody’s working on something–be it a hard day at school or work, a cancer diagnosis, or loneliness. Sometimes these things feel like a heavy backpack, the weight of which causes people to lose their cool and say or do something out of character.
Years later, I was reading the book Rising Strong, where Brené Brown devotes an entire chapter wrestling with a related topic:
Are people doing the best they can?
In the end she concludes that yes, people are indeed doing the best they can. I have to agree. I believe that people are doing the best they can with the current tools they have. There are people who may be working on something particularly hard and are in the process of acquiring the tools needed to deal with the issue. There are also people who have pretty crappy tools or no tools at all. And then there are others who don’t seem to even realize there are tools they can acquire to help them do better. Does this mean I let someone treat me in a way that isn’t right for me because they are doing the best they can with their current tool set? Absolutely not. I need to decide what I will and won’t tolerate. I need to recognize where others are and decide what’s best for me when dealing with each person. If everybody is working on something and everybody is doing the best they can they can, then I need to have compassion while setting boundaries that work for me.