Friday, November 04, 2005

In the Absence of Knowledge

This is a continuation of yesterday’s reflection on the asceticism of charity, for it is a specific application of it. What happens, for example, when your spouse or child is expected home at a certain time, and they are still not back an hour later than that, and there has been no call to notify you of any change? Many people would think the worst has happened, or at least would begin to worry. Why is that, when they have not a bit of concrete evidence that anything went wrong? Why think there must have been an accident or some other bad experience instead of the half-dozen other possibilities that bode no evil? There is a psychological principle that goes something like this: in the absence of knowledge or of facts concerning a given situation, the mind will automatically create some scenario to fill the gap—usually a more or less pessimistic or negative one.

What does that have to do with the asceticism of charity? Well, think about it. How often do you judge another person before you have all the facts concerning the issue? How often do you hold people under suspicion based on a hunch or vague feeling about their character or intentions? How often do you think you know how another person regards you, or what he or she is thinking about you? So-and-so doesn’t like me, and so when I say such-and-such to him, he will probably say this, and then I’ll say… And so the self-generated (and usually groundless) scenarios go on.

In many cases charity consists simply of giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, not making any judgments in the absence of knowledge or facts. We tend to assume the worst intentions and motivations in others, but the asceticism of charity would have us assume the best. It really is a type of asceticism, a training, to get ourselves to regard and treat situations and persons differently than we’ve become accustomed to doing.

We have to question ourselves carefully to see if our speculations or judgments or suspicions have any solid basis in reality and fact. Why do we think that someone doesn’t like us or is out to get us? Why do we attribute base motives to another? Why do we assume malice instead of human frailty or an honest mistake? Perhaps we’ve been hurt or wronged in the past, and so we’re “once bitten, twice shy.” But everyone has been hurt or wronged in some way at one time or another. We can’t let that set the course for our whole life and turn us into pessimistic, fault-finding, untrusting people. Obviously, we also don’t want to be so gullible as to be an easy mark for every con-artist, but let’s at least begin to trust and give the benefit of the doubt to people we know. The unfounded negative assumptions about others are the first steps toward paranoia, not to mention straying from the Gospel.

It’s too easy to fail in charity by creating mental scenarios about other people—or giving their actual words or deeds the worst possible interpretation—and then acting accordingly as if it were the truth. Decide to attribute honorable intentions to others—in the absence of contrary knowledge—and to look for the face of Christ in them. “…think with sober judgment… let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection… live in harmony with one another… so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:3-18). “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14-15).

The world is already filled with hatred, suspicion, ill will, and malice. Do not feed the flames, but rather take the initiative to be good to others and thus draw goodness out of them; think well of them and thus create an environment in which they are encouraged to think well of you. That doesn’t mean we’ll never be deceived or betrayed or hurt by another—but if, in the absence of knowledge, we assume the best instead of the worst, we’ll be following in the footsteps of Christ and will have his blessing.