Giving People All The Benefit Of The Doubt You Can

David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement speech has been called the greatest of all time. Its subject? Perception.

Wallace asks us to consider how we would judge someone who we just saw yell at their kid in a checkout line. His meditation on it is impeccably drawn:

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Wallace isn’t most people’s idea of a Stoic, but the idea at the center of this paragraph is as Stoic as it gets.

Think of that when you’re stuck in the checkout line today, or when you’re caught in traffic, or when someone does something that really pisses you off that makes you think, “What’s wrong with this person?” You have no idea what their reality is, you have no idea what they’ve been through—and how much more empathetic and patient might you be if you did. Or better, if you gave them every benefit of the doubt.