After I became a UU in 2013, a new phrase entered my life: “assume positive intent.” I heard this mantra whenever a committee or a group was creating a covenant for the upcoming year. It has also been mentioned before annual meetings as a way for Members to remember to practice gentleness and kindness with one another when having difficult discussions and making hard decisions. But what exactly does this phrase mean and how can we apply it in our lives?
Broadly speaking, assuming positive intent is to assume that most people mean well and do not intend to do you harm or hurt you in an intentional manner. Think of the family member who forgot to pick up an item from the grocery store on their way home or to complete a chore they said they would do. Or maybe it’s the co-worker who did not complete their part of a project on time. It’s normal to be upset and annoyed when these things happen because you feel that those individuals did not hold up their end of the bargain and cause you additional stress.
I am reminded of a sermon Rev. Jack Ford gave many years ago at BBUUC when he described the scenario of someone that cuts you off in traffic and how this immediately draws your ire. Instead of seeing this person as a nameless/faceless entity to whom we direct our outrage, he suggested we instead see this inconsiderate driver as someone we know, perhaps a fellow church Member, who could be driving fast on his way to see a loved one who was just in an accident and is at the hospital. Seeing this scenario differently humanizes this other driver and puts things in a more positive perspective.
I had to put this mindfulness into practice two years ago when my car was totaled. I was stopped at a red light when a driver plowed his car into the car behind me which then slammed into my vehicle, causing me to hit the car in front of me. It was 6:30 in the morning and I was on my way to work. I was initially shocked and upset by this, as any normal person would be. I had to put this anger in perspective and realize that accidents happen and that the driver did not wake up that morning wanting to cause a four-car accident.
Of course, this is not to say that there are not inconsiderate and reckless people out there. There definitely are. I see this every day on my walks where drivers do not pay attention to pedestrians, drive too fast, and impede my ability to cross an intersection. In the past, their inattentiveness would quickly draw my ire and set me off in anger for a few minutes. However, I continuously remind myself they did not set out that day wanting to almost hit a pedestrian. I have to hope that when I see the shocked face of a driver who almost hit me because they were not paying attention that they will drive differently in the future. I am pleased by the ones who slow down or put their vehicle in reverse when they see me coming to make sure I have ample time to cross in front of them.
It’s these small decisions we make to see people as human beings trying to do their best. We all make mistakes. We all forget to do things that we say we are going to do. We can be distracted by life. When we make mistakes, we apologize. When others have let us down, we tell them in a non-aggressive manner. A simple statement of “I know you didn’t mean to forget to do the dishes last night, but can you please do them before you go to work?” works a lot better than yelling at a family member “you never do anything around here!” Practicing gentleness and kindness on ourselves and others goes a long way to keeping our emotions in check and having more healthy interactions with others in our lives.
Madeline Sims, Member of the HCT