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Thinking the best of people

One of the most important things that my mother taught me is to assume the best of many other people people. She didn’t teach me this by telling it to me, she taught it to me by her actions and by her attitudes [1]. Now, I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have as much trust of others as she did; there are certainly times that I wanted to shake her and shout Can’t you tell that this person is taking advantage of you? But she generally assumed that, even when someone was taking advantage of her, they were doing so for a good reason [4].

Anyway, I find that as I interact with people, even when I get frustrated with them, I still think the best of them. I was reminded of this the other day when I was talking with a colleague about a staff member and some arguments I was having with that staff member. I said I love [that staff member]. My colleague said You’re being sarcastic, right? I thought most faculty didn’t like them. And I said No. I’m serious. While I don’t always agree with them, I think they are thoughtful about their job, they care about Grinnell, they are always willing to discuss why they make the choices they do, and they listen to my opinion.

I’ll admit that I feel like I have a more condensed version of that conversation a lot of the time. That is, I’ll say that I like someone on campus, and people will be surprised to hear that, particularly given their own opinions of that person. It’s not that I don’t think my people on campus make incredibly stupid decisions (see, for example, my recent article on Grinnell’s Web Presence), it’s just that in most cases, they are people I’ve worked with and think highly of [6]. And, in most cases, I find that almost everyone on campus I work with does really try their best and, in most cases, is willing to talk about the choices they make, and will listen to other opinions. (Yes, some times even after I provide them with what they should understand is the correct opinion, they still make other choices. So maybe they don’t listen well enough. Or maybe I’m not persuasive enough.)

I have lost my temper with a large number of people on campus [7]. However, when I calm down, I realize that I really do respect those people. I’m working on remembering that respect, first, before I get angry. It’s hard, but I’m trying [8]. In the end, I should remember that I respect almost everyone on campus.

Thanks mom! [9,10]

[1] Okay, not everyone. Certainly, her actions and attitudes toward John Silber were not the best [2], and he wasn’t the only one. Still, she was positive toward large numbers of people.

[2] Mom was known as one of the few BU faculty who would speak out against Silber [3]. My favorite time was in an interview in Time magazine. I think the interviewer asked But isn’t he a brilliant man? Mom’s response? Yes. Ezra Pound was also a brilliant man.

[3] Speaking out against Silber was not her wisest move. When I started as a brand new visiting professor at Dartmouth, my salary was similar to hers as a full professor at BU.

[4] Mom’s and my friend, Lynn Dorman, tells me that I am much too optimistic about my mothers, and that she trash talked a lot of people. I will stick with the memory that, when encountering someone for the first time (and even multiple times thereafter), she would generally assume good intentions. Lynn also tells me that the think the best of others is from my father. But I had mom around for a lot more of my life (45 years vs. 15), so I’m still attributing it primarily to mom.

[5] So, a Bostonian was walking through Hahvahd Yahd, trying to find the library. He encountered a gentleman in a tweed jacket. Assuming that this gentleman was a professor, our good Bostonian asked Where’s the library at? The Hahvahd Professor puffed out his chest and said At Harvard, we teach our undergraduates not to end sentences with prepositions. Our hero paused, thought for a moment, and then asked Where’s the library at, @!#@!!#!? [5]

[6] The last word in that question has been sanitized for younger readers.

[7] I’m clearly having trouble with this positive essay theme, aren’t I?

[8] My colleagues will tell you that I’m very trying.

[9] I’ll also remember that even though you thought the best of people, you also were not afraid to speak out about things that needed change. I’ll probably write a future essay about that subject, too.

[10] And dad!

Version 1.1.0 of 2016-09-14.