Assuming Benevolence

“The measure of mental health is the disposition to find good everywhere.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Driven from his writing by laughter and loud discourse in the next room, the writer recalled the Recovery, Inc. saying, “People do things that annoy us, not to annoy us.” When we are disturbed from our peace or taken out of our way unexpectedly or forced to do things we would rather not, the natural reaction is annoyance. When we mix in an element of entitlement, the reaction is likely anger.

Some of us go through life assuming people will do us wrong for no reason because it is a “dog eat dog world.” Maybe we were raised in a tradition that assumes people are basically evil. We may expect that the world should be fair, and it is not, so we get more anger to go with our fear. The news of the day provides plenty of examples of people hurting others or otherwise doing the wrong thing. It would not be unrealistic to mistrust human beings. It would seem even more reasonable to do so if we look into our own hearts and see a dark animosity there that we assume lies in the hearts of others.

When we assume the worst in others, we pay a price. Our social vector points more toward withdrawal than to engagement. We find ourselves fearful, tense, and isolated. In extremity the result is paranoia.

What if we ignore some of the evidence and adopt a position that assumes that other people are at their core benevolent? If we can understand that evil arises from ignorance and delusion, and if we remember that every human being has an innate need and desire to be loved, we can dispense with some of our assumptions about other people’s basic malevolence. If we seek to increase our compassion, even for those who do wrong, we begin to live in a world where there are no monsters. What we find in their place are people not fundamentally different from us, but people living in delusion taking an erroneous path toward getting their needs met. Some people are way off the path and their behavior is atrocious. We can’t excuse their behavior, but we can reflect upon their true core self that has been obscured by an errant ego. 

We get what we focus upon, so if we assume other people will deal us cruelty, we will live in a cruel world. If we assume the world is full of caring people who want to be loved and understood, we may find ourselves surrounded by love. We run the risk of pronoia, the opposite of paranoia, the sneaking suspicion that others are conspiring to help us, but maybe that bit of delusion is worth risking.


When you find yourself annoyed, remember the saying “People do things that annoy us, not to annoy us.”

Challenge yourself when you find yourself angry. See if there is some element of entitlement in your anger. Ask yourself if you are unrealistically expecting the world to conform to your expectations and desires.

Ask yourself if you are holding the unreasonable belief that life should always be fair.

Think upon the lives of persons who have done evil things. Think of them on their day of birth. See them as a little baby. Recognize the humanity, the potential goodness in that infant. Think of them growing older. See them in childhood enduring a lack of those conditions that allow a loving being to flourish. Connect the dots between later misdeeds and early frustration, early impediments to wisdom and compassion. Grow your own compassion.

Do this same exercise regarding yourself. Attune your mind to your essential goodness, to your true, authentic self. Recognize your basic desire to love and be loved, to connect with others, to be true and honest. Seek to forgive yourself for the ways you have abandoned that true self out of fear and ignorance.

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© 2003 Tom Barrett