On the surface, this is a fairly simple question. Do you think people are doing the best they can in any given circumstance?
Most of us would probably answer with a resounding "no." Everyone knows someone who seems like a slacker, who skates by in life without any regard to how their actions impact others. (And let's not even get into serial killer status. I'm talking about the average person here.)
There was more context provided in the book. In this case, the author had agreed to go to a conference she didn't want to speak at, and ended up rooming with someone she described as a slob. (The roommate was eating a donut when she walked in, and in making the effort to shake hands, wiped her dirty fingers on the chair she was sitting on without a second thought.)
Upon trying to make small talk, her new roommate decided to light up a cigarette, even though the hotel was strictly no smoking. When she expressed this concern, the roommate shrugged it off.
This person angered the author so much she took the issue to her psychologist. How could she be so uncouth? Who DOES that?! Every sentence was a scathing judgment on this person's character.
Her psychologist simply asked, "Do you think she was doing her best?"
"NO," she blurted out. "No way."
It wasn't until she did some serious soul searching and reflection that she realized how unforgiving she was being.
"I assumed that people weren't doing their best so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed, which was easier than setting boundaries."
"Self-righteousness starts with the belief that I'm better than other people, and it always ends with me being my very worst self and thinking, I'm not good enough."
Since she's a sociologist, she set about asking a variety of people how they would answer the question. I loved her husband's response the best: "All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be."
Why Cast Judgment?
This also reminds me of the fundamental attribution error - the claim that in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people's behavior. (Thanks Wikipedia.)
When someone is driving recklessly on the road, we assume they're an asshole.
When someone refuses to get off their cell phone in a library, we think they're an asshole.
When someone gives a customer service rep a hard time, we automatically categorize them as an asshole.
I'm not condoning these behaviors by any means, but we jump to these assumptions with no other thoughts attached to them.
I'm of the opinion that we're all human, and as such, we're subject to irrationality and making mistakes. No one acts perfectly in every circumstance. If we did, we'd have no regrets and a lot less self-help books.
At the end of the day, who am I to say someone isn't trying their best? How do I know what their best is? I have no idea what kind of emotional hell the day may have poured on them. (Maybe the author's roommate was in the process of a destructive divorce and only had donuts and cigarettes to turn to.)
What's more is that this judgmental thinking rarely adds to our lives. I'd argue that it takes away more. Negativity is exhausting, and I'm sure you have enough of your own issues that you don't need to add the issues of others on your plate. From a mental bandwidth perspective, it's not sustainable.
So what's the solution? Well, I always try to minimize my exposure to this to begin with. If someone is driving recklessly, I distance myself...and that's about it. I don't curse at the person, I don't start ranting and raving like a lunatic all over social media. I acknowledge it, wonder what's causing the erratic behavior, and then I let it go. I always carry headphones with me in case someone is talking too loudly. If someone is saying hurtful things to an employee and I'm next in line, I try my best to lighten their day.
As far as people in my life, I don't allow room for negativity. I'm not sunshine and rainbows all the time - far from it - but if someone is bringing me down, then I let them go. One of the basic principles I subscribe to is that something/someone must add value to my life in some way to be a part of it. I will do my best to help people, but there comes a point when you've provided all the guidance and direction and the person needs to take action.
Common thread: let go. Far too many people hold onto anger, resentment, judgment, or whatever else, and most of this is caused by people they don't even know. Why are you allowing the actions of strangers to affect you THAT much? What is the purpose in devoting that much mental energy to caring?
Am I Doing My Best?
Okay, let's go back to the original point of this.
When I came across this question, I paused. My answer years ago would have been very different than my current answer, and that's because I used to be mired in self-righteousness. I know better than they do. How could they even think that makes sense? What a dumb mistake! I would never make that decision.
Wow. (In case you're curious, I was pretty bitchy.)
I was coming from a very unforgiving place; a place full of hurt where I wanted to get back at the world for all the pain I had endured. A place of inadequacy.
Something I've struggled with a lot is the feeling of not being enough, or not doing enough. Asking too much of yourself and then beating yourself up for falling short is a vicious cycle, and it's not a productive one. So one of the things I've been trying to do this year is be more forgiving - of myself, and others.
Forgiveness is a very powerful thing, but it's not easy to seek it or grant it. However, it's extremely freeing once you figure it out.
As a result, I can approach this question with a much more level head. I know I'm doing my best, but my best looks very different on a day-to-day basis. Some days are easier than others. I have weeks where I'm on a roll with work, and I have weeks where my brain doesn't want to focus on anything.
My best could be making it out of bed and checking email. Someone who didn't know any better could assume I'm a lazy bum who does nothing of importance, and that assumption would probably be fairly hurtful.
I refer back to the quote above. Life is a lot easier when you simply give people the benefit of the doubt (that includes yourself), and accept the fact that as humans, we're subject to making mistakes.
That doesn't mean letting people walk all over you, or giving yourself permission to slack off. You still need to be honest with those around you and yourself. But it does mean operating from a place of forgiveness and open mindedness.