Assuming Goodwill in Others

Today we begin re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel. I’ve often commented on it before but this morning I was struck by the fact that Benedict assumes goodwill in others. It seems obvious. Day to day, the monastic enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the community members. How else could it function? But when it comes to policy, to decisions about buildings or work or, whisper it gently, liturgy, there is more scope for less disinterested behaviour — I write as the survivor of many a chapter meeting where I had the feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed.

It is the apparently neutral ground, where we talk about one thing but seem to be busy about another, that makes the assumption of goodwill in others sometimes difficult. The bitter devisions in U.S.A. politics, the never-ending instances of incompetence and cronyism nearer home, are all rightly the subject of discussion and condemnation, but I wonder whether the situation would be as grave as it is were we able to assume goodwill in others.

Why are we reluctant to assume such goodwill? Is it that we fear to be thought naif? Or do we say, a little cynically, that we have been caught out before? As an outsider, I have found the presidential election in the U.S.A. and the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats baffling at times, never more so than when considering the behaviour of President Trump himself. An important element seems to be a reluctance to grant that it is possible for people to act in good faith in ways that we ourselves would not. That applies not just to politics but to most other areas of life as well.

Benedict reminds us that if we are to benefit from the wisdom and insights of others, we must be prepared to listen. Good ideas, good advice, can come from the most unlikely quarters. We may not like what we hear at first, so, like the abbot, we must think things over, give the matter time. But we start with that simplest and most difficult of acts: assuming goodwill in others.

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10 thoughts on “Assuming Goodwill in Others”

  1. Sometimes very difficult, mea culpa, mea culpa. It would be much easier if St Benedict had said “Assume Good Will in others” … however mistaken their views appear to be. The sun has just come out – God is in His Heaven dear sister.

  2. Here is a Buddhist story. Once there monk walking down a road when a group of boys stopped him and asked him to kill a snake that was terrorizing them and biting people. The monk told them he would see what he could do.
    As he continued down the road he did encounter a very mean looking snake. The monk called out to the snake and offered to teach him. The snake was interested because the monk did not want to kill him. So the monk taught the snake meditation an doing no harm. The snake had never heard teachings like this and bowed down in gratitude to the monk.
    And said he would change.
    The monk went on his way. Several months later the monk found himself on the same road and thought he would see how the snake was doing. He looked and looked for the snake and finally found him deep in his hole…he looked terrible…he was bleeding and had many wounds. The monk asked the snake what happened. The snake told the monk that when he would be mediating, groups of boys would come after him and beat him. The monk tended to the snakes wounds.
    He said to the snake, “I taught…do no harm. I never said not to hiss.”

  3. Our world would look much different if each of us trusted the motives of others. I want to be ready to made look a fool once or twice. A third time? That would be pushing it although has been known to happen.

  4. A very timely and apposite reflection. Thank you. You hit the nail firmly on the head in your final sentence ‘…..and most difficult of acts’. I know from the hundreds of meetings I have attended in my time how often I have gone with preconceived ideas of the motives of others and how rarely I have assumed that they have come with goodwill. It is almost inherent to be suspicious of the motives of others. Peace be with you

  5. Thanks for this. I know that as a person who strongly opposes abortion and euthanasia I’m often tempted to see those who disagree with me as being totally misguided , or even evil, rather than trying to appreciate that they may well have reasons for their opinions that have a moral base. Dialogue requires that we accept our ‘opponents’ as being people of good faith, and that’s the only way we can hope to both learn and teach, and grow in our own understanding of truth.
    Again, thanks for your balanced and wise reflections. May God’s love be with you.
    Pax.

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