We live in an age where everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere. This is particularly true here in Israel, where driving from point A to point B can seem like a struggle. It often feels as if drivers are only concerned about their needs; their urgency; their destination. When I look around, I see mostly impatient, inconsiderate drivers. Yet I fear that if I looked at the mirror – I might see another one myself.

Maybe we should all just slow down, and give others the benefit of a doubt?BenefitOfDoubtCard

My daughter and I have been practicing for a 10K race. We do our ‘morning run’ a couple of times a week on our neighborhood sidewalks. The other day, we were approaching a crosswalk when a car showed up. It was about to turn onto our path when the driver spotted us. He stopped and let us cross the street safely. We turned and waved our thanks. It was a small act of courtesy that lasted less than 10 seconds.

Once we were safely on the opposite sidewalk, another car arrived. What the second driver saw was the first car stopped before the turn – in the middle of the road. It was blocking his path for no apparent reason. He honked his horn angrily, and we could tell by his facial expression that he was quite mad at the first driver. I could almost hear the second driver thinking: “how stupid can people get – blocking traffic for no reason during the morning rush-hour?”

I admit I have been guilty of similar behavior myself. We often see a snapshot, a fragment of reality, and are quick to judge. True, we rarely have time to collect all the facts, put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and arrive at the absolute truth.

And what is the “complete picture”? Maybe that second driver was running late to an important meeting that might have cost him his job? And maybe he couldn’t leave the house earlier because he had to attend to a sick child first?  I know, some of this is unlikely, but is it impossible?

Yes, you could assume that people are selfish, inconsiderate and careless. But would that attitude make you feel any better? Or will it simply become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and provide you with the justification to act selfishly yourself?

A couple of years ago I came across an inspiring speech on this very topic by David Foster Wallace.  He spoke about our freedom to choose our way of thinking, and how we treat other people as a result:

 “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

David Foster Wallace, 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College 2005 (on YouTube).

I looked at that second driver, and I saw a shadow within myself. I recognized my tendency to quickly judge situations, people. My tendency to assume that others have wronged me on purpose; or didn’t make the effort to avoid doing so.

Maybe David Foster Wallace was right? After all, even the Jewish Talmud instructs people to “Judge every person favorably” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Maybe “blaming others” is just a default way of thinking that we could and should control?

Wouldn’t giving people the benefit of a doubt make the world a better place? At the very least, it will make each of us feel just a little less angry… and isn’t that enough?