When I was 12 years old, may dad decided to take a job promotion and transfer that would require us to move from a small town in central Florida to Corpus Christi, Texas. I was in the 7th grade in the town where I was born, where I had always gone to school, where all my friends were, and where I had lived less than an hour away from all my 1st cousins. Not only that, but I was popular with the kids at school, knew all the teachers, and the town fathers had just decided to start a youth baseball league that I really wanted to play in. Needles to say, I did not want to move. But move we did.
On the drive to Texas my father told me a story. It seems that there was a service station owner who was running a service station (in the old days of “full service” stations) in a town when a car drove in for gas. The man driving said he and his family were thinking of moving to that town, but he wondered what the people who lived there were like. The Service station owner responded, “What are the people like in the town where you live now?” The man replied that they were some to the nicest, best people one would ever want to meet – friendly, helpful, caring and always well-intentioned. The station owner told him, “I think you will find the people here a lot like that”. A little while later, another car stopped in for gas, also carrying a family thinking of moving to their town. The service station owner got the same question, “What are the people like here?” His response was the same, “What are the people like where you live now?” The man replied. “Not particularly nice – they tend to be selfish, self-serving, underhanded, and generally not well-intentioned”. The service station man replied, “I think you’ll find people here a lot like that.” When the car drove away, the service station assistant who had heard both conversations, said to the manager, “How could you give those people completely different answers to the same question?” The owner replied, “People are pretty much the same all over, but we tend to see what we expect to see. So we will tend to see the same things in the new people that we meet as we have seen in those we already know.”
I got a lot of useful wisdom from my Father, but this may have been one of the most useful stories he ever told me. Trust begets trust. And we can interpret people’s actions in different ways. Many years after this, someone gave me a book called “The Four Agreements”. These are agreements that we make with ourselves that help us get along peacefully with other people. The 3rd agreement is “Don’t Make Assumptions”. When I read this, if occurred to me that one of the things we all tend to assume frequently is what other people’s “intentions” are. We can know with some accuracy what they say or do, but knowing “why” they say or do it is not so easy. It is difficult for most of us to not make assumptions about people’s intentions. But these are probably the most dangerous assumptions that we can make.
Before I reading The Four Agreements book, I once attended a meeting at the request of two people who I knew to be trustworthy and fair. This was the board of a company that owned real estate and they were trying to decide what to do with some of the assets. I did not know the others in the meeting well, since I was not a regular attendee. In addition to my being there the group had asked a real estate professional to attend. I thought it had been a reasonable meeting, but on the way back in the car, my friends began rehashing what had been said and why. The real estate person had brought up some things which they had not expected, and they were busy trying to decide why he had brought them up. Their fear was that he was being self-serving and not interested in the best interest of the group. The discussion was not about what he had said , but why had he said it. What were his intentions. My friends were seeing only the less honorable intentions. It dawned on me fairly quickly – having had some professional real-estate experience, that there were some perfectly legitimate reasons for his comments and that should be considered in deciding what to do. It was also true that one could not say with any certainty why he had brought these things up. But if they were legitimate , then it may not matter. We see what we expect to see – often fearing the worst – particularly when we don’t consider the alternatives.
In the case of the recent incident in Ferguson Missouri, there were obviously people who initially saw what they expected to see. But the initial information – the lead stories, and the front page headlines made it easy to assume the worst. It wasn’t until several days after the rioting started that I actually saw some additional facts about what happened that put the incident in a little different perspective although still not without some questions. People often made assumptions about intentions without waiting on additional information. We see what we expect to see (or sometimes what we want to see), and “don’t confuse me with the facts”. In Ferguson, the demonstrations, rioting and looting have not helped anyone. If anything they have made the situation worse, by escalating the problem, and driving people to positions that they might not otherwise have taken. These things will not likely get better until we can quit leaping to conclusions about what has happened. We have a “due process” – in this case the Grand Jury – designed to look at all the available information and make a considered judgement on actions and intentions. We may never see of know all the things that the Grand Jury considered. But until we are able to let the processes that we have in place work, accept the outcome, and not escalate the conflict, we are going to have continuing and probably worse problems. We will no doubt continue to see what we expect to see, but we should learn to wait for all the facts and look for other explanations before we react by assuming what we expect to see is the final answer.