Does each of us always do the very best he or she can?
Over the weekend, my good friend Sue J. and I got into one of our regular “debates”, this one about whether people always do their emotional best — that is, do they always try as hard as they are able, at any given moment, to master their impulses and behave in the most constructive way possible? Sue insists that “We’re all doing the best we can … and we could always do better.” I disagree, not only because the statement is logically problematic but because it flies in the face of my personal experience.
Let’s begin with the logic. If one can always do better, then how can one be making the best possible effort right now? Unless we entirely dismiss this statement as illogical, we have to assume it implies a process of growth where each step of the way always represents one’s personal best, with expectation for improvement rising exactly as much as one’s growing capacity to meet it. As a logical proposition, however, it still leaves something to be desired. From my point of view, it sounds sentimental, like saying that human nature is inherently good (and never mind the atrocities occurring every minute of every day around the world). If someone were to argue instead that people are usually trying to do their best, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight; but insisting on always makes it impossible to evaluate anyone’s behavior or render judgment about it. This was your best effort, but that was not.
Judgment, of course, is the problem with the original question. If I state (which I do) that people aren’t always doing the best they can, it implies that I’m making a judgment about them and their psychological efforts (which I am). In the course of our debate, Sue accused me of being “judgmental”; I felt, for possibly the thousandth time, that our culture has lost the distinction between exercising judgment and being judgmental. The very act of “passing judgment” will bring denunciation down upon your head. People will accuse you of being “holier than thou,” or arrogant for presuming to judge other people. It seems that for most of us, any kind of judgment is the equivalent of being judgmental. The problem also seems to be with the word itself: most of us can’t hear “judgment” without investing it with harshness. My friend Marla Estes suggests I use a less charged word, such as “discernment”, to describe the process of making distinctions.
In my earlier post on narcissism vs. authentic self-esteem, I mentioned an incident where I felt badly about myself because of poor choices I’d made in a social situation, knowing I could have done better. I’ve had this experience repeatedly in my life, and in those instances, I don’t necessarily feel harsh or judgmental; I often feel disappointed in myself because I haven’t lived up to my own expectations. Usually, it’s because I didn’t want to exert the necessary effort. I took the easier route, by doing what felt better in the moment, instead of restraining myself and earning my self-respect in the long run. To me, saying that everyone is always doing their best implies a kind of relativism without authentic standards, since it has been decided in advance, by definition, that the standard has been met. The standard = the behavior.