Apr 5, 2011

Doing the Best They Can - Really?

I have read and heard many times that we should feel compassion for the people in our lives who are "doing the best they can."  Today, I was listening to a talk in which the speaker said he believes that parents, our parents, did and do the best they can with the tools they had or have.  If they didn't do something for you, it was because they couldn't.

It sounds nice.  It sounds understanding.  But I don't believe it.  Why? Because it's not true for me and I don't believe it's true for most people.  I know that I can't say about myself that in all that I've done, in all of my interactions, I did the best I could.  I could have done better! Couldn't we have said it more gently, reacted more calmly, been more patient? I know I could have. 


  1. I think the point is that for yourself you shouldn't believe it but for others you should.
    Being congnizant of our short-comings is supposed to enable us to improve and better ourselves, not to have us say, "well that's the way I am and I couldn't have done better then that."
    I hear people blaming their parents for varying issues they have and I don't like it. In such situations I will say they did the best they did with the tools they had at the time and all parents make mistakes.
    However that's not enough for myself. For myself I need to keep on top of not being complacent and accepting of things the way they are and need to keep searching for better tools.
    I hope however that when I do inevitably goof as I am only human and not G-d that my children will be compassionate enough to understand I did the best I could with the tools that I had.
    I hope for the same understanding from my friends and acquaintances as I assume they expect from me.

  2. I can say that for certain people, yes, they did they best they could under the circumstances. But for most people? We are lazy, not in the mood, tired, preoccupied. I can't believe a statement that I don't think is believable. In fact, if you'd ask those very people they are likely, if honest, to tell you, yeah, I could have done better.

    Rather than blame others for our problems, and rather than say they did the best they could (when we might not believe that) we can say, what happened is by Divine Providence and my job is to accept that and work to change whatever it is in my life that needs improving.

    We can also say, as you mention, that we are all human and we make mistakes. Some mistakes are benign, others are more devastating. If it's us, we can do teshuva. If it's someone else, we can work on compassion and forgiveness.

  3. I wrote up a whole long reply and then as I wrote I started to change my mind.
    ok yeah, I guess watching someone botch up, you can't just say they did the best they did.
    But we still have to be dan l'kaf zchus seeing as we don't know what was going on in their world at the time.
    For example someone in physical pain, might lash out in anger at anyone unlucky enough to be in the proximity. yeah that's something they have to work on, but one would hope that if you see someone hopping around in pain you'd understand now's not the time to talk to them and they are only being mean because of the pain.

  4. My parents used to make us wear ugly corrective shoes because the doctor told them that we needed those clodhoppers. There was no way in those days to challenge doctors so whatever a doctor said, people did, and all of us kids with our genetically flat feet suffered. Now doctors know that flat feet are not cured with corrective shoes and children are rarely forced to wear them but my parents thought that they were doing the best that they could, even though we were so embarrassed to be seen in those shoes. Today, self esteem would have won out over the foot issue, unless doing the in thing and being unique would have won out over self esteem. What I am trying to say is that we often make decisions based on limited information and that is the best that we can do.

  5. Rosie - I think that's a case where you can apply "they did the best they could." The idea probably works best with actions taken in circumstances where the people did the best they could with the information they had, given the circumstances they lived in.

  6. OK, for example, this year, checking romaine lettuce for bugs and drying the lettuce for the seder will fall entirely on me. Because of that, I limited the number of seder guests that I invited to a number that I felt that I could manage to reliably provide kosher lettuce. I am sure that there are those out there who feel that I could push myself to work harder and invite more people.
    On ordinary Shabbosim, my husband is often too exhausted from a week of hard work to entertain guests, especially if they are the type that need attention. I usually don't invite guests for that reason. Could someone fairly say that my husband should push himself more? I am sure that there are those who would.
    Doing the best that one can, may mean assessing the reality of the situation and trying to do what is normal and realistic for the person's capabilities. If I am taking care of grandchildren while my children rest, I can't cook during that time or something will go wrong, especially because my Pesach kitchen is in the basement which is not baby proof. To me it is important to know my limits but there are those that say that limits are meant to be stretched or ignored entirely because if we are really doing the best that we can, we go beyond our limitations. I find that whole idea quite stressful.
    A couple of years ago, on chol ha moed Pesach, we agreed to host a difficult guest for the last days. She slept at our house and ate by a neighbor. She made my husband and kids very nervous and she clearly has "issues". When we were asked the following year to have her back, not only was every bed taken but we had to tell the neighbor that one Pesach was enough for us; that we would not be making a tradition out of it. I would guess that whoever hosts her is stretching the limits of their comfort zone to do so. To me, doing my best was to put my family through it for one half of one Pesach. I don't think that my or my family's patience could be stretched any further. We did the best that we could.