Put the best construction on everything. — Martin Luther
During our orientation for mission for the Episcopal Church we’ve been talking about the assumptions and preconceptions we bring with us as we encounter others, and how these may be received, challenged, confirmed, or upended as we enter other cultures.
A piece of advice we discussed: assume positive intent.
That is, our default assumption of people’s intentions can be that they mean good, a positive outcome, good will. When something strikes us as uncomfortable or awkward or off somehow, start from the assumption that their intentions are good and go from there.
Because we do have a choice about how we see a situation and what we think is going on. We can make the choice to assume a positive intention.
Isn’t this naive? Won’t we be disappointed? Sure. Sometimes. And sometimes it will hurt a lot. And even those of us who easily have this as our default know that there are some people who don’t always operate with positive intent, or that the circle of those for whom they intend good is very small (family, others like them, business partners). But for the most part, those of us who adopt the ‘assume positive intent’ attitude find out we’re almost always right.
Thing is, those who adopt the opposite attitude, assume people are out to get you, wish you harm, don’t care at all about others, find that they are almost always right as well. Our expectations shape our experience.
But which outlook makes for a happier life? A holier life? A more joy-filled and delighted life?
Assume positive intent.
Martin Luther (the protestant reformer who lived from 1483-1546) explained the Eighth Commandment Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor this way:
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend [our neighbor], speak well of [our neighbor], and put the best construction on everything.
A more recent translation says explain everything in the kindest way.
Imagine the beautiful relationships we can build if we use the best construction.
PS If you haven’t read David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon, please do. Read for his wisdom on the work of choosing and keep going so you won’t miss his wisdom on worship.