"Judge every person favorably" (Ethics 1:6).

We judge about as effortlessly and unconsciously as we breathe. By the age of six months, babies already show anxiety around people who are not the same color as their usual caretakers. By the age of two or three, children often fear or ridicule the aged, the handicapped or those who are even slightly different. Children are distraught if they are handicapped in any way, even by having frizzy hair or freckles. To the primitive mind, "different is dangerous." Our brains are hardwired to seek people who are similar to us, and to feel untrusting toward those who are not. Sometimes, we have only seconds to determine if a person is safe or threatening, if we should get off the elevator even though we haven't reached our floor, because something about the person who just entered doesn't feel right.

We also tend to feel endangered when we feel deprived in any way. When a baby isn't fed on time, or if he sees his Mommy giving attention to another child, he can feel threatened. If he could put his feelings into words, he would say, "I'm scared. I must get what I want when I want it." Thus, there is a part of our brain which thinks, "Discomfort and deprivation are dangerous." This is why it is so hard to avoid that second piece of cake or avoid snapping at a spouse who has annoyed us.

When people disappoint us, that same primitive part of the brain is triggered. We will want to lash out at them if we think, "They're doing this against me personally, on purpose, to hurt me and deprive me of what I need." The judgments gush forward: "If she had just been a little more careful, she wouldn't have burned the food." "If he was just a little more loving, he would have seen that I'm totally overwhelmed and would have helped instead of running to his computer." "If he had any sense of responsibility, he would have told me about this a week ago instead of springing it on me at the last minute!" So there we are, certain that the other person is being intentionally stupid, insensitive, messy, greedy, mean, irresponsible and annoying.

The only way out of this paranoid trap is to take a moment and humbly ask ourselves, "Can I really be absolutely sure, with 100% certainty, that my spouse could have done better?" If a parent would take the time to humbly think this thought, he wouldn't say to a child who scored 90% on a test, "I know you could have done better!" After all, can a parent ever really know how well a child could have done, given the type of test, his mood that day or any of the other factors which could have impinged on him at that moment?

To judge favorably means having the humility to think, "She or he is innocent." Unless I have proof that my spouse is doing this act deliberately to hurt me, I assume that there is no premeditated malice. Since I cannot know, with 100% certainty, that my spouse could do better at this moment, I assume this is the best he can do right now. Given his present level of emotional intelligence, intellectual intelligence, socialization, childhood experiences, innate personality type and G‑d given talents, he cannot do any better right now.

This does not mean that we deny the fact that people can be incredibly irritating and disappointing. The Torah classifies people into normal, evil and mentally ill categories. And we must treat each category differently. If a person is normal, then it means that we see them as basically good and interpret even negative behavior in a positive light, assuming that the lack of self-control is due to a momentary lapse. If they are mentally ill, we have compassion for them, but lower our expectations and forgive them for lacking self-control. If they are evil, we interpret even their positive behavior negatively. In other words, we do not trust them at all! Giving the benefit of the doubt does not mean that we give up our powers of discrimination or that we like everyone and condone their behavior.

When my children were little, I put up a chart on the refrigerator to help them judge favorably. It said: This Person is Innocent By Virtue of the Fact That He Is….

  • Sick
  • Forgot
  • Has no self-control at this moment
  • In urgent need of a bathroom
  • Learning disabled [e.g., disorganization, clumsiness, ADD, ADHD, etc.]
  • Loving disabled
  • Extremely tired, stressed or overwhelmed
  • Lacking skills, education, awareness or intelligence

It takes a lot of practice to think, "Innocent!" Yes, all people are irritating and disappointing at times. Spouses will fail to return calls, fail to respond when we need them, and be slow, incompetent and moody at times. The only way to avoid being in a constant state of anger and resentment is to first have a change of heart (attitude). Only then can we have a change of feeling.

When you think, "Innocent," you are humbling acknowledging that you do not know, with 100% certainty, if your spouse could be more careful, neater, smarter, more loving or considerate right now. Unless you are living with someone who betrays, lies, scorns and exploit you, calm yourself by thinking, "They're not evil or disturbed. They are innocent, which means that at times, they are clumsy, lazy, stupid, irresponsible, preoccupied and unskilled….just like me."

I remember a woman who felt that her husband didn't listen attentively enough when she spoke to him. Each time he looked away from her eyes, she felt abandoned and angrily accused him of not caring. Thanks to our sessions, she learned to calm herself down by thinking, "He's innocent. It's unrealistic to expect that he should listen, with 100% attention, to everything I say whenever I want to speak. Maybe he's preoccupied. Maybe he's traumatized because I forced him to listen too much in the past." I gave her a three-minute egg timer and told her to tell her husband, "I'd like to talk to you for three minutes. Is that okay with you? If not, that's fine." She could even add, with a bit of humor, "If you can't talk, I promise not to feel abandoned." At the end of three minutes, she could ask, "Tell me honestly if you can handle another three minutes? If not, it's okay." The timer gave him a sense of safety. With the pressure diffused, he was able to listen more attentively. I also taught him to judge her as innocent and think, "She's not trying to stifle me or control me. I don't have to give up my life in order to please her. She is just insecure and needs reassurance that I am not abandoning her. At the same time, I have the right to decide how to utilize my time."

If you are dealing with someone with a serious addiction or emotional disorder, you can still think, "They're innocent and cannot help themselves," while taking protective action. With average, normal people, the only way to help them become more responsible and considerate is to reinforce the behavior you do like by showing a lot of appreciation and acknowledging their "victories." Even if you do not get the immediate results you want, keep thinking, "Innocent." It will bring you inner peace. And don't forget to judge yourself as innocent for not being able to please everyone, and even for not living up to your own impossible standards. All that is required of us is that we do our best. And most people are doing just that.