Presuming Good Intentions

Even those who don’t go to yoga may have heard this bit of yoga lingo, “Namaste.”

I have heard yoga teachers translate this as “the light within me honors and recognizes the light within you,” or “the divine within me recognizes the divine within you.” Although it can sometimes feel like a brief moment of spirituality or philosophy slapped onto the end of an exercise program, this greeting that indicates interconnection can be a good starting place for thinking about how we conduct ourselves off the mat.

I was reminded of this recently when listening to a favorite podcast. On Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft’s Happier podcast, they recently featured listeners’ manifestos. The short lists of rules to live by that the audience presented applied to many aspects of life, but I was particularly struck by a teacher’s manifesto.

Among the many good precepts of her teaching manifesto was this: presume good intentions.

In other words, give the benefit of the doubt. None of us perceive ourselves as the villains of our own life stories. We attribute good intentions to our own actions. What happens when we attribute these good intentions to our students, or others in our lives? To make Namaste a little secular and banal, what if we really do acknowledge the light within the other people we meet?

And I’m not saying this is easy! As a fellow teacher, I know that this is likely on that other teacher’s manifesto list because it is hard to do and a practice that requires constant reminding.

But it’s also a reminder worth having in mind. At mid semester, I find myself tired. My students are also tired. The shine is off the semester by this point, and crises, both real and fabricated are starting to emerge. This semester, some 300 students are in my classes. In the last week or so, I have heard about student illness, students’ parents’ illness, and tales of domestic abuse, car crashes, opportunities that cannot be missed, and a tragic accident at a fraternity house.

Some of these are no doubt fiction. But some are true.

When I am very tired and at the end of my rope, I find a nasty voice inside me doubting my students, presuming the worst. It’s an unpleasant feeling—I become an adversary pitted against those very people who I hope to coach and encourage.

In contrast, I find that when I presume the best and work with a student to make their success possible, I feel better…. even if I am perhaps being a dupe at that moment—what is the most charitable reason I can find for being duped? And often, I’m not being duped. For a young man who needed to take his exam late because he was spending time in the hospital with the friend injured at the fraternity party, his goodness in supporting his friend was something that was easy for me to support. The thing is, in many cases, giving the benefit of the doubt need not be effortful, it’s just a habit we can fall out of.

I happen to know that this student’s story was true because news of the accident has circulated quickly around the campus, but even when uncertain, there are costs to attributing bad intentions. In her blog post, “Academia, Love Me Back,” Tiffany Martinez writes about a professor marking “not your words” on a paper when, in fact, the writing was Ms. Martinez’s own work. In her post, she writes of the pain, anger, and doubt she feels as a result of this casual, and uncharitable comment.

For me, this young woman’s story again drove home the point that believing in the good of others is a pretty low cost activity, but not so the reverse.