Forgive Them, For They Know Not What They Do

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Photo by Michael Olsen on Unsplash

I’m not religious, but I have to admit that there are some quotes of Jesus that I really like. This one, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”, is a real gem. This one instruction is monumental to my peace and well being. Now I don’t think of these words all the time, but implied in his statement is the idea that everyone is doing the best that they can. All the time. That is a foundation principle that I live by.

When I look at human behavior, right or wrong, good or bad, I keep coming back to the same question over and over again. “Do people behave as they do because of capacity (or lack thereof), or just poor character?” Every time I try to divine the answer to that question, it comes down to capacity.

There is another quote that is relevant here: “Better to assume ignorance before malice.” Sometimes I have to remind myself of that when I see people intentionally pushing my buttons. In my research for this article, I looked up the actual quote and learned that it is as follows: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, which is a more complicated way of saying the same thing. (It is formally known as Halon’s Razor.) Both statements make the same observation, that challenging behavior, or poor behavior is about capacity rather than character.

Character vs Capacity

So often, we see people behaving poorly and we think we need to punish that person because we’ve already made an assessment of character. We think that a person deserves punishment when we see someone exhibiting poor behavior.

Consider the following examples. He hurt someone because he didn’t get what he wanted. She deceived someone to get what she wanted. He withheld relevant information to get something he wanted. She blackmailed him to get something she wanted. All of these examples are of people using some sort of force, as adversary, to get what they wanted. They lacked the capacity to do better. I know now that once I put all poor behavior in the context of capacity, rather than character, then I never have to take anything anyone says or does personally, again.

Now we could assume that they lacked the character to do better. We could assume that they woke up one morning with a desire to do something awful to someone else. I’ve seen the mugshots of people accused and arrested for horrific crimes and most of the time, I see someone who is completely confused. They don’t really seem to know why they’re there, in a jail, getting their prints and pictures taken. They don’t understand why they’re being restrained for doing something awful, that at the time, seemed like the best thing they could to do remedy whatever situation they were in.

Everyone is seeking a remedy. Most people are confused or they wouldn’t be seeking a remedy. In fact, I really don’t believe in evil. Yes, there are people who commit terrible, awful acts against others, but I submit that they did so in confusion. Where some people will make a moral declaration or judgement against someone who committed a crime, I see a lack of capacity to do better.

Understand here, that I’m not offering a defense for a criminal. I’m simply saying that the typical criminal lacked the capacity to do better in the same way that a kid lacks the capacity to read until he learns how to read.

I see a spectrum, a continuum of people in life. There are confused people, or what some would call, “evil”, and there are less confused people, whom we might call, “good”. In all cases, people act based on their capacities. With better knowledge, people tend to be a lot more civilized. With less knowledge, people tend to use force to get their needs met.

Life, is about getting our needs met. We get our needs met to live. With greater knowledge, we become civilized. With greater knowledge, we know how to say, “please”. With greater knowledge, we know how to make fair exchanges between each other. With greater knowledge, we know how to discipline our minds, and how to let the feelings or impulses pass before acting on them. With better information, training and even mentoring, we might achieve something called “self-actualization”.

A Spectrum of Deflection

Across the spectrum of good and evil, I keep arriving at the same conclusion: Evil is a supernatural attribution to challenging behavior exhibited by people, regardless of age or gender. What I find so interesting in modern day Christianity is this obsession with punishment and reward. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” we are told. Punishment will drive the evil out of the child. This sort of thinking fails experience and evidence in a spectacular way. It is really a deflection away from the parents so that they never have to admit their part in the results.

It’s like a baseball player who looks at his after dropping a fly ball in left field. He deflects blame from himself (for his lack of capacity) to his mitt (which has no opinion on the event).

He knew better. Did he? If he did, he would have caught the ball. Dropping the ball is not evidence of a defect of character. This outfielder simply lacked the skill required to catch the ball. The outfielder in our example made a mistake. He did not appear malicious. Days later, we learn that he was paid to throw the game. Could he have done better? I’d still say no.

If he needed money, and threw the game to make more money on the side than he was already making with his employer, he’s demonstrating ignorance of negotiating skills. Or he lacked information on how to get a better agent. Or he lacked information on how to get help. I think it can be fairly said that most human suffering is a result of a lack of good information and an inability to ask for help.

Note that I didn’t say “unwillingness” to ask for help, because being unwilling to ask for help is still based on ignorance. Unrealized fears, unreasonable fears, shame, or a really bad experience of asking for help in the past can all inhibit someone from asking for help. With nearly any display of poor behavior, be it from a white lie to murder to taking a bribe, I can drill down to one and only one conclusion: people behave badly because they lack the capacity to do better.

Divining the Difference Between Punishment and Restraint

This isn’t to say that I’m defending a dangerous criminal, for we have a right to restrain someone who is a danger to us. But we don’t really have a right to punish him. I think that people who murder are already in some incredible pain. Murder is just about the most counterproductive act one could possibly do to get one’s needs met. Nobody who commits murder has completely thought through every contingency, even if they “get away with it”. People who commit murder should be restrained because they lack the capacity to get their needs met without hurting someone else.

But I stop at the point of punishment, like isolated confinement and the death penalty. Punishment assumes malice. Punishment assumes a lack of character when the fact of the matter is, we cannot read someone’s mind. Besides, punishment doesn’t actually teach any useful skills. Punishment will yield obedience and rebellion, but the outcome of any punishment is not within our control and most of us lack the capacity to predict with certainty, such outcomes.

I say that it’s better to assume a lack of capacity under all circumstances because, if someone could do better, they would. You can drill for character defects all day and night for years on end, it still comes down to a lack of capacity. I’ve tried it, both with myself, people I have known and with the people I read about in the paper. I can almost always find some clue that the offenders were ignorant of some bit of knowledge that would have made it easier for them to get help.

Most people who abuse others were abused by others. They received abuse disguised as instruction at the hands of their caregivers and that instruction says that abusing other people is normal. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about mild criticism, spanking or grounding of kids. It’s all instruction and kids are great imitators. So are adults.

With New Information, I Can Do Better

So I try to model the behavior I want to see in other people. I try to set an example. I treat others the way I want to be treated. I read a ton about human behavior to see what the scientists have learned and apply what they teach me, to my own life. I perform introspection on a daily basis. I went to a lot of meetings, did a lot of therapy, did a ton of writing must for myself — which I continue to do, and I watch my own thinking.

What I love about writing is that when I put those words down on paper, or on the screen, I can see how I think and change it. My ideas gain weight, heft, and they become real. They become actionable. I remember good ideas better when I write them down. I test my ideas with practice and sharing, and I note the results. The overarching question in my mind, the one that I ask every day is, did my choices bring me greater peace than before?

I life a life of relative peace because I’m willing to forgive. I assume that everyone is doing the best that they can when they make an error, and I forgive them. I treat forgiveness like a good habit. Forgiveness is “mental floss”. Forgiveness is like paying the bills, doing the laundry or brushing my teeth. I forgive for better mental health. I forgive to clear my mind to make room for something better.

I forgive the irritating people in my life because I believe that they really don’t know what they’re doing. And if they did, they’d do better.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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