I don’t know if you are like me, but I constantly have to fight against making snap judgments.
For example, at my church, there is one non-handicap space towards the front of the building. In the morning, I try to leave early in order to get that space. But more times than not, someone else is parking there. As I pull into the parking lot to spend time with the Lord at Holy Mass, I already taint the experience by getting angry at the person who parked there.
This is not a rational reaction, I know. To have a feeling of annoyance is not, in and of itself, a sin. But I have to guard against uncharitable thoughts.
The challenge is separating my feeling of annoyance with an objective assessment of the way things are. Sometimes we are quick to assign malice towards actions where there is none. The person who got to the parking space first is not trying to hurt me. They probably have no idea about my extra effort to get the spot. So there is no reason for me to be angry.
In reality, I imagine that most of our feelings of being insulted or slighted come from this perspective. Someone may step on my foot accidentally. Perhaps I should be angry at them for not being careful. But I easily could fall into the trap of reading into their actions some kind of ill-intent.
I may not be able to control how I feel, but I can control my judgment of another. I remember being in college and asking a girl out. She said no and I was devastated. But instead of simply acknowledging my own pain and dealing with it, I held a grudge against her for a long time. It shames me that I would think this way and it speaks to my great immaturity. But her moral guilt was in no way tied to my own sense of injury.
But how often do we look at people this way?
Especially with our social media culture, there is a greater sensitivity in people. Feelings seem to be hurt more easily. That in and of itself is not the problem. Unfortunately, those who are hurt ascribe ill intent and moral guilt on those who hurt them. And while this may sometimes be the case, it is not a good idea to look at the world through this lens.
To be sure, the world is a dangerous place and there are people who wish us harm. We sadly have to teach our children stranger danger and we keep our doors locked at night. And sometimes when we are in authority over others, we have to be wary of deceitful actions.
But barring these, we should try to see the good in people.
Let’s say you see someone you know at a public event. You walk over to them and say hello. But they simply walk away. You feel hurt and slighted. Did they do this to you intentionally? It is possible. But why jump to that conclusion. If there is another rational explanation of their behavior, then we have a moral duty in charity to give them the benefit of the doubt.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former. (Summa Theologiae, II-II.60.4)
The Angelic Doctor is reminding us that giving someone the benefit of the doubt may be a mistake. But it is by far a better mistake to make than judging ill-intent when it is not there. To do that would be to fall into the chief of all sins: pride.
Anything that moves us towards that demonic vice is poisonous to the soul. As soon as we start pushing others down to raise ourselves up, no matter how justified we feel, then we are taking a step closer to the Devil.
Pride and love are mutually exclusive. The more of one will mean less of the other.