Ashes and Goodwill
It’s hard to give clear thought to what caused a fire when we’re in the midst of putting it out. But afterward, when the flames are extinguished and the smoky remains crumble underfoot, we can sit down with a glass of cool water and reflect on what the hell happened. Interpersonal conflicts can be like this, whether they are one-on-one or involve groups.
I’ve been involved in two recent situations that one might liken to such fires—one in a professional context, and the other in a personal relationship. And upon reflection, I’ve realized that these two instances fit a pattern I’ve observed in so many similar situations—including public discourse, particularly in the political realm. While the specifics of each situation differ, of course, there is an underlying parallel: an insidious pessimism.
One of the hallmarks of Ignatian philosophy, which has played an important role in my own spiritual and ethical formation as well as that of many people with whom I associate every day, involves aspiring to a charitable disposition toward others—particularly when tensions and temperatures have reached the point of combustion. Ignatius articulated this in his Spiritual Exercises when he encouraged those involved to default to a “presupposition of goodwill.”
One might call it a “charitable optimism” about another’s intentions. It does not call for a naïve blindness to ill intentions, or the presumption of the good in every situation. It’s more nuanced than that; likewise, it’s a bolder calling. It’s the presumption of the possibility of the good. It’s an appeal to our common humanity, in order to accommodate each other’s mutual frailty. To cling to the conviction that underneath our lapses, there is a unique human person comprising more than the sum of our failings. And that giving credence to this is of paramount importance—even if, yes, it does imply some genuine risk of being burned. (But can you think of a meaningful relationship that doesn’t?)
This insidious pessimism, on the other hand, is the “presupposition of ill will.” To use similar but diametric imagery, I’ll say it’s the arrogance and self-righteousness that disregards each other’s mutual human frailty. It’s a failure to accommodate the fullness of each other’s humanity, instead using a zero-sum calculus to reduce each other merely to the sum of our deficiencies. Some of the signs and symptoms of this pessimism include unwillingness to listen further after hearing something we don’t like, conclusive judgments based on our own feelings (regardless of broader facts), and misappropriating mere anecdotal instances as sufficient evidence of patterns and trends. It’s at the heart of the “call out” culture that seems so prescient online—just consider the ferocity of the mob attacks that dismantle lifetimes of good work and render lifeless everything but a person’s worst moments or most careless comments.
Yes, I’ve seen this at work in my own life recently. So, make no mistake: my thoughts here do not comprise some intellectual analysis from a distance. No way. I’ve been right there in the mix, carelessly throwing sparks, and sometimes even fanning the flames. And I bet maybe you have too. What makes this so hard is that usually, we're able, quite easily, to identify the other side's unwillingness to presuppose our own goodwill—all the while hypocritically refusing to do the same in the other direction. Quite a trap.
So what’s the alternative to this insidious pessimism? Is it to put on the proverbial rose-colored glasses and ignore the harsh reality that people can be rude, careless, deceptive, spiteful, or even hateful? No. But it is to have the humility to acknowledge our own capacity for the same, while holding fast to the truth that most people, most of the time, are not these things. It’s to approach situations of tension with the underlying presumption that the person or people involved are so much more than the worst of what we are seeing (or think we are seeing). And all the while, having the humility to remember that there’s probably quite a bit we don’t know that’s relevant to their actions. This equips us with the freedom to encounter situations of tension with the confidence and calmness that there is a greater, deeper good to be discovered within each other—even if we have to wait for the flames to clear some space first.
I’m told, by those who know of such things, that ash makes fertile soil.