Sep 29, 2013

Is He Really Doing His Best?

Shais Taub found it necessary to write a lengthy (more than a page) explanation about his use of the phrase "he was doing his best" in a previous article.  It leaves me wondering what the point is in using a phrase that is so puzzling that it needs that much explaining. 

I remember coming across the phrase, "He is doing the best he can with the tools he has" in Miriam Adahan's writings years ago, and not liking it.  Why? Because it isn't true.  I assume that if I am not always doing the best I can, neither are other people.  After all, how often are we actually doing the best we can.  If someone offered us a million dollars to do better, wouldn't we do better? Quite likely!

Taub says, "When looking at a person's behavior, we have to take into account all sorts of factors ... the best that they were able to do at that moment, with the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities they had at that time.  These factors include their experiences, their education, whether they had enough sleep last night, and so on."

He goes on to say that none of these factors are excuses and they don't absolve anyone of anything.  They just help explain the rationale behind someone's behavior.  He goes through all this explaining in order, he says, to help us see that the problem is with the other person, not us.  But then I don't accept this line either, "They were pathetically incapable of doing better." Sure they were! But for some reason, Taub wants to use these phrases which aren't true, while simultaneously saying, the person should have done something to become the kind of person that doesn't do those bad things.

I can see thinking through various factors to explain someone's unacceptable behavior; we do this when we are judging someone favorably.  But why not simply say: "Their behavior was unacceptable; They could have done better; It was hard for them because of bad habits/poor role models/difficult personality, etc.?"


  1. What constitutes "one's best". For example, on Yom tov, my 2 yr old granddaughter dropped her lollipop on a filthy floor of a lobby of an apartment building. Her father was davening in one of the apartments that had been converted to a shul and I was supervising her. I disposed of the dirty lolly and that caused a major tantrum. Her father felt that I should have ignored the dirty lolly situation and let her pick it back up to avoid a tantrum. I felt that kids get stomach bugs from less exposure than that to germs and that the lolly was sure to cause disease. What my daughter pointed out was that a third possibility existed and that was washing off the lolly. I thought that I was doing my best to protect the child but was my best actually a choice that I had not even thought of?

  2. When Adahan etc. refer to someone doing their best, they are talking about their behavior i.e. rude, impatient, deceitful, cold etc.