On the whole, I believe that we do our best with the knowledge and abilities we have. Parents don't try, for example, to hurt their children. The injuries parents inflict are a result of their simply not knowing how to be loving. We don't try to hurt the feelings of other people. We're just drowning, and in the process we behave in ways that are inconvenient and even painful to others.
On some occasions, however, we're not quite doing our best, as illustrated by this story about George, who called me to say that his wife, Sarah, had just left him. I had worked with both of them intermittently for years.
"I just don't get it," George said. "I did the best I could, and it didn't do any good. She walked out anyway, and she's made quite a mess of things. The kids are upset, and I don't know what to do."
George had been raised under conditions that were far from loving, so it was understandable that he had been insensitive and unloving toward Sarah. But there was more to the story.
"George, how many conversations have we had?" I asked.
"Quite a few."
"In all that time, how many recommendations would you say I made about how you could become more loving with Sarah?"
"Dozens. How many of them did you follow consistently?"
"Some of them."
"You followed a very few of them once or twice, but as far as I know you didn't consistently do a single thing I suggested—which would mean like for a whole week. Not one. How many of those suggestions did you write down?"
"I don't know."
"We spoke by Skype, with a video camera, and I never saw you write down a single thing. How often have you called me or others for support and counsel?"
"Probably three times in four years. (The 'quite a few conversations' mentioned above were initiated by me.) And I don't know anybody else you've called. You call only when there's a crisis, like today. So I understand that in the beginning you were doing your best as a husband. Your parents virtually crippled you emotionally. But then you asked for help, and if you didn't write down anything I said, and you didn't consistently do a thing I suggested, can you really say you did your best?"
On many occasions we might be doing the best we can, but when that is not enough to achieve happiness for ourselves and in our relationships, "doing our best" just isn't enough. It becomes an excuse. We must dedicate ourselves to improving our best, and George didn't do that.
Saying that we're doing our best becomes an excuse very much like the one where we say we "didn't mean to" when we hurt people. It is our obligation to continually be looking for how we can do better.
Few of us live consciously, where we make consistent efforts to be aware of our feelings, our choices, and the feelings of others. In such a state it's unavoidable that we'll make a great number of mistakes, so it is our responsibility to intentionally learn how to be more aware and more loving. Using our unconsciousness as an excuse will only guarantee our own unhappiness and that of the people around us.
Learn how to be more aware and more loving.
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