Some (painful-for-me) Thoughts on Letting People off the Hook


I’ve learned something recently, something that I know will change my life if I can get my head around it, something I wish I would have realized 20 years ago, but nobody was talking about things like this when I was 30.  If I could fax my younger self I’d say without hesitation – master this.

Brene Brown, in one of her recent books “Rising Strong,” relates some powerful advise from a friend:

Steve said, “I don’t know. I really don’t. 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.” His answer felt like truth to me. Not an easy truth, but truth.

This sounded great, so I tried it.  Massive fail.  I don’t have it in me.  I’ve built an entire world around judging others, comparing myself to others, using the “laziness” of others to make myself feel good, labeling people based on what they have or haven’t accomplished in their lives.  I tried to lay it aside but it’s become part of me.

It feels good to tear someone down.  It makes me feel valuable, ironically, when I take someone’s value away.   But ultimately I have to put myself under the same microscope, which is especially hard these days.  I”m a washed up, has-been pastor, now a stay at home dad.  Not much in my life to tout.  All the judgments, all the “can you believe that guy” thoughts that I’ve used to create my little accomplishment-based caste system have come back to haunt me.  In spades.  Over and again I come up just as short as everyone else.

I spend more emotional energy ripping myself apart than I care to mention.

Sadly, the only way out of it is to take Steve’s advice and let as many people off the hook as I can.  But it’s nigh unto impossible when I’ve spent my life in an activity that’s brought so much meaning, and is such a powerful salve for my carefully hand-crafted crappy self-view.

I will say that I’ve gotten a little better at it.  I’ve been trying to think of other things when I see someone driving like an idiot, or making excuses – clearly not “doing their best.”  Irresponsibility, selfishness, arrogance, sloppiness, people that don’t vote the way they should, people who try to hurt me – all used to be opportunities for a “boost,” now I see them as an opportunity to let myself off the hook, to live a better life.

I know.  There are lazy people in this world, people who don’t give a rat’s ass about anything, selfish people, folk who need to get their shit together, etc., etc.  But there are also stories behind why they approach life the way they do.  Painful stories.  Consider “Dave,” who, as a child, would do violence to himself to get his checked-out mother’s attention.  As a college student, everyone tried to figure out why he didn’t bother to shower, or study, or come to class.  He was sent to a psychiatrist who bothered to look deeper, and show him some compassion.  He found the deeper story.  The kid was doing the best he could.

There are a million ways to pass judgement without feeling like you’re passing judgement.  There’s only one way to believe that everyone’s doing their best.  As hard as it is, I’m convinced that it’s  the surest, most complete way to follow Jesus’ commandment to “judge not” anyone, including yourself.

If you’re someone who struggles like I do, it’s a quick path to freedom.

62 thoughts on “Some (painful-for-me) Thoughts on Letting People off the Hook”

  1. You have quoted a book and an author who has been instrumental in helping me to get up off the floor, when I’ve been knocked down. I too struggle with this, have written about it more than one. Was he really doing the best he could? To lie and cheat and deceive, over and over? It is so hard to believe he couldn’t do better than that. But I know his life, and I have to say that on an emotional level yes, he was doing the best he could. He just had no idea how to be better.

    But dang, it’s so hard, when someone has devastated you, to say, well he’s doing the best he could. I can do it for drivers, most of the time, for people I work with, for friends. It is so hard when it touches you to your core. I gotta agree with you though, it’s a quick path to freedom. It opens the door to forgiveness, which opens the door to letting it all go. I’m still working at it but most days…..I know that people are doing the best they can.

    Thank you for this reminder. I needed it, at this moment. Great post.

    1. Thanx – appreciate your thoughts. I’ve realized lately that self compassion is the thing I need most these days. And I can’t have it without extending it to others. You’re right though, so hard.

      1. Your comment here ^^ perfectly sums up how I feel having read your insightful post. You’ve articulated a feeling I’ve had for years that I’ve not been able to put into words. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Whilst I’m still thinking, “I *must* try harder to cut folk some slack and take off my Judgey Pants!”, I’m now also trying to honey my own harshly critical inner voice. I won’t stop judging people overnight; so long as I keep on attempting to assume the best in others (sometimes succeeding; often not) then maybe that’s good enough for now.

        You’ve given me lots to reflect on. Thank you.

          1. I get that. It might be. When I write it it was a question and now it probably isn’t. It was the best he could do. So maybe I’ll change it. It’s too early to decide, lol. It’s 6:30 am here and I’m luxuriating in bed still. A banged will require at least a cup of coffee. 😉

      1. more powerful if the reader has to think about whether or not it’s the best he could do, even though it’s still a question for you – and me. I wrestle with this re people who hurt others, betrayals, etc.

  2. Rene Brown is awesome! Those books helped me transform my life although I’m still working at it everyday. Steve was right and I’m working on that too. It’s getting easier but some days are harder than others.

  3. It is hard to stop using other people’s shortcoming to bolster your own self esteem. It is a real sign of growth when a person looks to build their self esteem based on real accomplishments. It sounds to me as though you are living a life based on real accomplishment.

  4. Great post. Love the honesty and introspection. But don’t beat yourself up. Evvvvveryonnnne judges others, whether they admit it or not. The second that people glance at someone, they make a judgment: Why is that guy wearing a beanie hat on an 85-degree day? Doesn’t he realize his hair’s going to fall out? or That person really should not be eating that. or Could her pants be any tighter? Etc. Even when we aren’t actively people watching, it just sort of happens.

    But as for the more important stuff, like people who text while driving or do something that will hurt them or someone else, I think of Matthew 18:15-17 and more specifically, what Dr. Belinda Scott has said: (paraphrase)

    If I walk into a room and see it’s on fire, I’m going to grab the extinguisher. I’m not going to just look at the fire and say, “Oh! Okay,” and walk away.

  5. I love this post for many reasons, but the one that stands out the most to me is the thought that the judgemental thing we all do is a double edged sword that can do us harm too. I think maybe the trick is to treat it like forgiveness. You don’t always forgive to pardon the other person, but to give your mind the opportunity to remove the focus of something so negative. 😉 Thanks for sharing this post. G-uno

  6. I would suggest that you stop judging yourself as a “washed-up, has been pastor” . Except for the occasional “f…” and “s…” words, you are doing what pastors are called to do, spread the gospel that can be understood and applied. Good post.

  7. This was a great read, and thank you for bringing your blog to my attention by the follow of mine today. Interestingly enough, I had recently found myself somewhat in your position. I was struggling to comprehend the stupidity of others, however, not by judging them in order to make myself feel better. My struggle was more about how to learn to look at stupidity with the same tolerance as I do all of the differences in others, and look on without judgement, but with humanity. I just penned an article this week about that, it’s not posted because I’m hoping for publication. If it’s not picked up somewhere, then I will post at a later date. But I found that if I could simplify my anger, by perhaps making “stupid people” their own protected class and add them to the list of our Civil Rights laws, it makes that easier for me to handle. By looking at it like a difference, and not a failing on their part. But now that I’ve just written this reply, I feel I may be doing an injustice to the rest of our protected classes, by putting ignorance in there…. Shit, I’d better think about this some more….:/

  8. Dear friends, this is an excellent post and I trust the message will speak to you as it did me. There are a few minor swear words towards the end and I normally would never post them. However, this message has great value. It is not mine. I did not write it. This is a reblog from another author. He has many thought provoking topics. He is articulate and extremely honest. Frankly, he tells it like it is and in a way that you feel he is sitting across from you having a face to face conversation. His language is not mine-although to be perfectly honest-there is no swear word he has ever written that hasn’t come out of my very own mouth at some time or another. But it is language that I try very hard not to use in my life now. I know some of you may be tempted to take offense but I am taking the risk-that you will not throw out the baby with the bath water or not be able to see the forest for the trees. This man has a voice that needs to be heard. So look beyond the very minor language and I promise you that you will find a pearl of extreme value in this particular post.

    Love and prayers

    1. Thanx so much for the re-blog. I get alot of comments about cursing, and I get it/agree that it doesn’t have to happen. I started this blog so that people who don’t believe would have a place to hear God’s word. It helps them to understand that I’m “one of them” if I throw out the occasional “vulgarity,” interesting as that is…. Just saying it’s not gratuitous on my part…

      1. I’m not so hard core about swearing as long as it doesn’t involve taking the Lords name in vain. But I have come to realize that personally- it’s just doesn’t look good on me. And I do walk in circles where some would take offense. So I do my best to avoid it altogether these days. Some of those who may take offense read my blog. So I felt I needed to address it for their sake. I do enjoy your blog very much.

  9. I often think how much nicer we’d treat eachother–and ourselves–if we always assumed everyone was doing their best. What could happen if that general feeling caught on. I can do this sometimes …and sometimes I forget. It reminds me of that quote “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

  10. Mark, a very moving and honest post. Don’t beat yourself up; we are all guilty of doing the same thing at different times. I admit, I find it difficult to accept many things people say, do, and promote now. Our world is changing in ways I don’t like and with it a society that is rolling over and accepting it. I try, like you, and many others to do better, be more accepting of others – but that doesn’t mean I can stand on my values and disagree. We’ve all had a journey. I’m sure mine is different from yours and yours different from someone else. I have a couple of things I often repeat to myself: I did the best I could with what I had. When I knew better, I did better. The second one is, Be kind to everyone, for you do not know the burden they may carry. Now, I can add the quote from Brene Brown. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Your thoughts about looking down on others are exactly what I do except the level of degree is not major at first. Usually, the bigotry and distaste for others is a bland afterthought that later grows into a parasite that infects my spirituality and mind. It was nice to hear about your solution and how you found a way to deal with it! For me, I’ve received the notion from the Holy Spirit to serve these people and it reminds me of my own imperfections. It also humanizes the person you were previously tearing down and will bring you to your knees from condemnation from the Lord.

  12. First I want to thank you for becoiming a follower of my blog.
    Whenever someone becomes a follower, I of course like to check out what they are writing about. I was struck by the honesty and humility of your post. Although on some level we are anonymous in the blogosphere, I still believe it takes courage to speak the truth about ourselves.
    What I find interesting is that in reading your post, I share much of the sentiment you express. Yet somehow, I often think everyone else is righteous and whole, and only I am the broken one. Which of course is absolutely not true. I think that many of your feelings are universal. I also believe that much of why we are here is to engage in a path of personal transformation. Yes, at times I stumble and fall. But so far, I’ve gotten up, brushed myself off and continued in the growth process. I am definitely not the sarcastic, negative arrogant man I used to be. And for that I am grateful.
    All,the best

  13. This was such a great read! I think that it becomes more like a habit… and like you said, it is easier to be so negative all the time. When people are telling me about their blessings (children, promotions, whatever) I bristle up, like they are bragging. That could not be further from the truth. But subconsciously I think we don’t want to sound like we are bragging about anything so we do the opposite and tear ourselves, and each other, apart. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading. x

  14. Wow, I think the Quote has changed my view on people. Often, I find it really hard to understand when people may let me down or upset me in some senses but just thinking ‘Their doing their best’ can really change your view on things. Anyway atleast your honest!

  15. First of all I thank you to bring forward this problem to the community. A great post.
    This attitude is what is called a superiority complex. We tend to feel good about ourselves when we point out the weaknesses of a person. This attitude in life only leads to trouble.
    Like you I only realized this just recently. This happened when all of the shortcoming in others began to heap on me. Now that I know how it is to be the bottom of the ladder I will never look down on someone else as I try improving my life again.
    Thank god life taught me a lesson early. Now I have time to improve my attitude but then it is never too late for a change. Best of Luck!

  16. I think it is okay to judge someone. It is a way to discover what we have been doing wrong and therefore, improve ourselves next time. However, we should also emphasize others’ goods more over their bads, to prevent ourselves become a sociopath or a world hater. It could really blind us from seeing the truth

        1. I think when we say “judge someone” we’re talking about passing judgment on their actions, not their value as a human. That kind of “judging” is ok I think, not the other kind.

          1. True. That kind of “judging” is ok for me too, but not the other kind. It is just interesting that the devaluation of others may sometimes correlate to the judgement on others’ actions. Because we ignore someone’s good, emphasize others bad, we then categorize people, put a label on them, or vice versa.

  17. Howdy Mark,
    That was a great read. I have some catching up to do.
    The wordpress blog below is really funny and refreshing. It too is written by a devout.
    Check it out if you get the chance. It’ll do you both good.

  18. Thanks Mark. That’s my Mom. I really appreciate you looking her up. She’s a poet, an archivist and a soul songstress -despite not playing any musical instrument but the heart.

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