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The benefit of the doubt

Sometimes I can be really, really wrong.

At a community meeting in the town where I once lived, there was a woman—in her early 50s, I guessed, and new to the community—who was unable to rise from her seat when the meeting was over. I and a couple of others helped her to her feet, brought her to a chair in the vestibule and began asking questions. Are you on medication? Can give us the number of someone to come and drive you home? She struggled to rise, mumbling incoherently, tottered, and sat down hard. Someone called 911.

The police arrived first, followed by EMTs and an ambulance. I led them to the quiet corner of the parish house where the woman sat, conscious but dazed. My neighbors were clustered in the back of the hall, murmuring. "I smelled vodka on her breath," said one. "She wouldn't let me look at her phone or go through her bag," said another. They had been trying to help, of course. But the woman, although weak and disoriented, was distrustful of us.

The police officer went to one knee before the woman, making eye contact. "People are concerned, so they called us to make sure you're okay," he said. He asked permission to look in her bag. She handed it over. The EMTs put a pulse oximeter on her finger, a blood pressure cuff on her arm, and gave her finger a needle stick to test her blood sugar levels. She cooperated fully, answering all their questions, which were put to her quietly and courteously.

Meanwhile the police officer pulled a vial of pills and a couple of water bottles out of the woman's bag. My friends and I exchanged glances. Vodka, we knew. Mixed with whatever meds she was on, it was no wonder she could barely function. But the officer and the EMTs kept responding politely to the woman's statements—no, she had not been drinking, she was not on any medication, in fact she felt fine and would like to go home—as if they believed her. Even as they prepared to strap her onto a stretcher, I heard the officer’s calm, polite reassurances.

As the EMTs performed the slow ballet of loading the stretcher into the ambulance, one of my neighbors blurted, "It's obvious what's wrong with her. Why didn't you just come right out and say you knew she was high?" The police officer's cool and steady gaze never wavered. "Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt," he said.

When I am convinced someone is lying. When I self-righteously appraise another’s bad choices or compulsions. When I believe I have the right to judge, to scold, or maybe even take over for that person's own good—that’s when I need a dose of what those first responders had in spades. They didn't assume anything about the woman, but behaved as though she were telling them the truth. They allowed her the dignity of her humanity, which is, often, to miscalculate badly, to make awful mistakes, and to try to save face even with the mess lying all around us.

Next time I blow a presentation, miss a deadline, hire the wrong person, or cut someone off in traffic—when I’m covered with the evidence of my failure or poor judgment or just wrong-headedness, I hope I encounter someone who can suspend harsh judgment, show compassion for my humanity, and give me the benefit of the doubt. I’m working on doing the same.

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