Benefit of the Doubt


[I’m posting this with Annalise’s permission.]

I follow Jesus. I love Jesus and, for me, that means I believe love has broken in on my self-destruction. When I play It’s a Wonderful Life in my head, I don’t disappear as if I never existed; I see the man I would have become had God not interfered.*

Jesus in my life means I have grace for my failures. Jesus in my life means I have grace for others’ failures. It means that I seek to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. By this, I don’t mean that people who have committed evil acts should be treated as if they really meant to do good, nor that we should pretend those bad things didn’t happen.

I mean that everyone has more to their story. I mean that everyone who is losing to their demons is losing to their demons. I know what that’s like. I mean I can’t judge anyone’s behavior as if I could never behave like they are. I could be like that. I could behave just like that.

Yesterday, Annalise and I went to the DMV. Her eyesight is very poor, bordering on whether she will be allowed to get a driver’s license or not. She feels very conflicted about this, but mostly she just wants to know so she can go forward and plan her life accordingly.

We’d gone there together a month ago so she could get an ID card. The DMV was not busy that first time, perhaps half a dozen people at windows or waiting. We saw her number come up on the board, stood up, and walked to a window.

Unfortunately, we went to the wrong window. I think I led her there, somehow transposing the numbers between those on her little ticket and the window number itself. The man, tall and bearded and heavyset, glared at us and asked, “What are you doing at my window? I didn’t call you.” Informative and accurate, but not kind.

We retreated, found the right window, and received kinder treatment from the woman there. I kicked into my extreme version of grateful-and-deferential-client, learned the hard way in Nicaragua, to help Annalise not to feel any more uncomfortable than she already did.

If you know foreshadowing, you know what’s coming. We walked into the DMV yesterday, we were literally the only patrons in the entire building, and were immediately called…to that first guy’s window.

Annalise gave me her wide-eyed, Now what? look.

I’m going to tell you right now that I hate being treated rudely, or even brusquely, because I want to become everyone’s friend and have them like me and tell their significant other and cousins and pets what a great guy I am. Plus, I never, ever want my kids to be mistreated. I know the real world doesn’t work that way. But I want it to.

I’m also going to mention now the man is Latino. I lived in Nicaragua for seven years and can speak functional Spanish. I found him a little intimidating. He’s big.

He asked, “How can I help you today?” Annalise had a little difficulty trying to explain her situation. Finally, I clarified, “She’s not trying to get her license yet, she just needs to take the eye exam to see if she’d be eligible to get a license.”

“No, we can’t do that,” he said.

Then he smiled at us. And he proceeded to be accommodating, funny, and yes, kind. Annalise is legally blind in one eye, so taking the exam wasn’t an easy process. A lot of people who are blind in one eye have licenses and are fine drivers,** but the vision test is of course designed for someone with two functioning eyes. But he walked her through each step, encouraged her when she succeeded, and then encouraged her when she didn’t. Truthfully, Annalise had a bit of difficulty understanding his directions a few times and he treated her with unwavering patience. As a dad, I’m going to say it was beautiful. It was exactly how you would hope to see your young adult kiddo, trying to take responsibility but definitely still figuring it all out, be treated in a government office. Or in any office. Or by anyone.

You think the moral of my story is going to be “We thought he was a horrible man but he turned out to be wonderful.” No.

When Annalise and I left after our first visit, we had a good conversation about how the man spoke to us.

“Maybe he was having a bad day,” she suggested.

“Exactly,” I answered her. “We don’t have any idea what might be going on for him. Maybe he’s had some white people behave badly toward him. That can happen. Maybe people go to the wrong window all the time and it just gets annoying after a while. Who knows? That doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. We have bad days, too.”

We had that conversation before we found out more about how he treats people. In my usual experience, I would also have learned about him and his family and his ups and down for the last twelve years. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. But that didn’t happen this time. We were “all business,” but he made that business pleasant and as near to enjoyable as it could have been, in our circumstances.

Annalise and I laughed when we walked out yesterday. She was still frustrated over her situation. She has to go back to the optometrist, who had told her she needed to go the DMV in the first place. Isn’t that “adult life” for you? But we had to shake our heads at what a different experience we had of this man. We still don’t know what happened in that first interaction and we almost certainly never will.

But I want to give people grace. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. Do you know why?

Because I want to be given the benefit of the doubt. When I snap at someone, which I do, I want people to believe that I might be a kind human being having a bad day instead of a bleep who always treats people like bleep. I want to do to others as I have would have them do to me. And I always want the benefit of the doubt. So I always want to give the benefit of the doubt.

I hope you understand, I’m not boasting that we didn’t jump to judgment against this man. I felt encouraged that I got one right. I’m passing on the reminder that Jesus gave us, almost certainly grinning as he did.

I want to live this way because Jesus loves me and shows me grace. People may not deserve the benefit of the doubt; I want to give it, anyway.

We all need grace.

*Dang, I hope I didn’t just spoil that movie for you.

**My brother-in-law, for one–okay, he goes a little fast sometimes. Man, I hope he’s reading this.

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