Here comes The Speech. I can see it on his face. I can feel the words gathering in the air between us. One part plea, one part protest, one part lamentation.
I’ve got The Speech memorized. I hear it in my office with some regularity. And not just in my office: I also hear it out and about from friends and colleagues. It’s as if, at birth, we each receive The Speech on a laminated card in our “life kit” (along with a water bottle, Starbucks coupons, suggested Twitter names and sample toiletries).
In most cases, The Speech follows stories about people who are disappointed in us. Angry with us. People who have criticized our behavior. People who are asking for (or demanding) an accounting of something we said, something we did or left undone.
Wives or husbands are leaving us. Our children are distancing themselves from us. Siblings won’t return our calls. Friends are withdrawing.
Yes, here comes The Speech. Like most people who give The Speech, the man before me sets his jaw defiantly and overpronounces the words between his teeth: “I did the best I could do with the information I had at the time.”
Well, then. There it is. The Speech.
I myself have given voice to this same speech, more than once during my lifetime. It feels so right to say it out loud. It affirms me. It defends me. It provides a soothing sanctuary from the siege. The Speech understands itself to be fighting for justice. To wit: It does not beg for mercy and understanding; it demands mercy and understanding! It is just and right to stop being unhappy with me, for I have done my best! It’s wrong to ask me to be accountable for pain I did not intend to cause nor could have possibly prevented by doing better because, as I have already pointed out, that was the best I could do!
So, leave me alone. Stop criticizing me.
It’s an odd little speech, really, upon more critical examination. First off, measuring the truthfulness and accuracy of The Speech is a muddy, murky business. How is it, exactly, that I know when my behavior is the best I could do?
But, there’s a second, more important issue here. Let’s say we could know when we have done our best in living and loving. OK! Great! I’ve done my best. Now, what have I gained by securing that conclusion?
I’m asking: Is it always of keen relevance to know you did your best?
See, here’s the rub …
I am capable of some really shoddy behavior whilst doing “the best I can do with the information I have at the time.” Sometimes the best I can do includes blithe oblivion to other folks’ feelings. Other times the best I can do is nonetheless disrespectful to others.
Sometimes the best I can do includes a self-absorption that must neglect or even reject those who love me, need me or count on me. Sometimes the best I can do is astonishingly selfish.
A few times in my life, the best I could do was inexcusably hurtful.
Sometimes the best I can do is be a sack of sin on a meat hook.
When the best I can do neglects you, hurts you, disrespects you, conscripts your rights and liberties or otherwise estranges and alienates you from me … it’s not particularly relevant whether or not I was doing my best. The only thing that’s relevant is my willingness to clean up my mess. The most pressing issue is whether I can be humbly accountable even for that which I did not intend.
I think there is a better and more relevant speech:
“I … didn’t know. I didn’t see. I was deaf, dumb and blind to myself and to you. To what was really going on. What was really at stake. And now you come to me and say that time and place in our relationship was nonetheless consequential for you, and not in a good way. You are right to say I should have seen what I could not see. If it means anything to you … now I see.”
And then we can set ourselves — and our beloved — free:
“Even if that was the best I could … you deserved better. I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me.”
Ah! Peace. Peace at last.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.