Thursday, February 16, 2012

"I'm doing the best I can!"

When our family lived in Taiwan a few years ago, my wife and I were restricted service ordinance workers when our English ward attended the temple. It was my first (and only) opportunity to serve in the temple as an ordinance worker, and I really enjoyed the experience. I would gladly serve again if the opportunity presented itself.

One of the bits of training we received was on “correcting” temple patrons. We were taught basically not to do it, with a couple of very specific and limited exceptions. Instead, we were told we should assume that each patron is doing the best he or she can.

It made sense, really. People who come to the temple are already declared by their bishops and stake presidents worthy to come to the temple. They are faithful members of the church who are there to serve. Many come to the temple at pretty great sacrifice of time and sometimes distance. In our ward, some members who attended did so instead of working, so they sacrificed income in order to participate.

Knowing that these folks really were trying to do what is right in most areas of their lives made it easy to assume that they were also doing their best in the temple.

I mentioned this idea in a comment on another blog last week and someone responded what a great thing it would be if we assumed this in all our interactions – that the other person is doing the best he or she can. I say Hooray for that idea!

What would be gained from such an approach? Would we treat others with more or less charity if we assumed they are doing the best they can do? More, I suspect. Would we be more supportive of positive changes we see? I suspect so, especially when compared with the alternative, namely finding the next flaw for someone to work on.

It’s caused me to reflect on people who have helped me to succeed. The ones who have done it best are not the drill sergeants of my life. They are the cheerleaders. My father almost never offered direct criticism of something I did. He did compliment me a lot. And I don’t think it was my stunning awesomeness that drove his behavior. I think he learned that a dad can draw more flies with honey than vinegar (despite the fact that I could probably have used a vinegar bath from time to time).

Shortly after I was married, I was called as a Sunday School president of my Provo ward. This was the time that Sunday School presidents were becoming pretty irrelevant as far as I was concerned. Opening exercises had been done away with. And during my tenure, monthly in-service meetings were done away with, too. I found our stake “training” meetings to be dull and uninspiring. And if I had a hard time figuring out how I could be relevant, imagine how hard it was to figure out how the stake Sunday School president was relevant. Yet our stake SS president would visit our ward, put his arm around me and tell me how much he loved me, and how much he appreciated what we were doing in our ward’s Sunday School. He talked about the quality of teaching in our ward, and how we met the needs of our newlywed / nearly dead diversity (ok, he didn’t call them nearly dead…). Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I actually liked it when he came, and I always had one more idea of something we could do to improve teaching in our ward.

Our bishop now regularly talks about the good things our ward is doing. We do have an awesome ward, by the way. But I have been bishop in this ward. I know that bishop doesn’t sleep well many nights. I’m sure he worries about the youth, the underemployed, the poor, the disaffected, and probably his own family. But he doesn’t lecture us. He doesn’t give us his top three things we ought to be doing. He thanks us for our service and accepts that we are doing the best we can.

What are the risks of such an approach? Few. Once in a while we’re in a position where we need to offer instruction or correction. Parents, teachers, youth leaders, bishops all might need to do it sometimes. But instruction can certainly be given with the attitude that people are doing their best. Correction may be a little trickier, but even correction need not be given in anger or with contention. Think D&C 121 – when we reprove betimes with sharpness, we do it with the clarity of a photograph, not the cutting edge of a knife. And we surround that clarity with love.

The only other time that we might try to justify a different approach is when offering a cautionary tale to our children -- that is pointing out someone else’s mistake in the hope that our children won’t replicate it. I think this is our greatest chance to assume the best in others. Even if there was a mistake, we can teach the mistake and its consequence without condemning the person involved.

The Savior’s injunction not to judge applies. Even our “righteous judgment” ought to be limited to actions, not people, remembering that whatever judgment we use will also be reserved for us. I, for one, hope the judgment applied to me assumes I’m doing the best I can.


  1. You've given me something to think about. I found your blog through blogregate and I plan on coming back.

  2. Paul, can I just say that I love your blog. Absolutely love it. You write with a depth and humility that I really admire. I read a lot of "mommy" blogs, so it's refreshing to see a Priesthood holder's take on spiritual matters. Especially one who has "been around the block" as it appears you have been. I'm hooked.

    "when we reprove betimes with sharpness, we do it with the clarity of a photograph, not the cutting edge of a knife."

    Wow. I had to read that a few times, and I got a lump in my throat when I did (that's a good thing).

    Thank you for this post. Thank you thank you thank you. I feel really strongly about this topic (assuming people are doing the best that they can). We really can't go wrong.

    Thanks again. Wonderful post.

  3. Wow, thanks for reading, both of you! Glad you came along and liked what you saw.

    Becca, the reference to sharpness = clarity comes from Theodore M. Burton, former member of the Seventy who taught that principle to me while I was on my mission. It's been a guiding light to me ever since.

  4. What Becca said. You always, always hit the right note. Thanks, Paul.

  5. Great post (no surprise there). We talked about this in Sunday School a while back. The world would be a kinder place, if we were less judging and more accepting of each other.

    Jim likes to say "at least his heart's in the right place."

  6. Paul:
    It is interesting how different people are impacted by different things. As I have grown up in the church, I look back a notice how I have been drawn towards those leaders who try and teach me how to be better. The ones that put their arm around me, thank me, and acknowledge my efforts are nice, but don't really make much of an impact. I'm not really in this for appreciation of others - I'm in it to grow - to push myself. I love it when a talk comes along in Conference that challenges me and asks me to be better, and asks me to do something harder - to step up.

    That said, I know many people who can walk away from a conference talk like I described feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated. It is an interesting tightrope.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I shall ponder...

  7. MMM, thanks for the comment. Although I used examples of how I've been treated, I really think this is about how I view others.

  8. Professionally, I work with school-age children, and this has made me less sympathetic to adults. There is a problem with giving adults a pass for doing the best they can - because adults have more power. Sometimes, our best just isn't good enough, and this hurts those who have les power, like children.


  9. Angie, you raise a fair point. Sometimes we are in a position to evaluate the performance of others, and we inned to do so honestly. But we can still be clear on matters of correction and also show respect. And if it's not our job to judge, then it's not our job to judge.

  10. Thank´s a lot to make me "think", think before I can talk, think before I judge and better try to never judge again anyone only the choices I have to, and always do the best Ican.