Many years ago, my good friend Barb said something I never forgot. â€œPeople shouldnâ€™t say they did the best they could. Nobody ever does the best they can,â€ she remarked with the wise authority ofÂ a personÂ in her early twenties. Struck by the commentâ€™s harshness, I wasÂ also impressed with Barbâ€™s bracing insight. I decided she was right. Ever since then, whenever someone said, â€œOh, well. I did my best,â€ Iâ€™dÂ think to myself, â€œOh, yeah? I bet you could have done better.â€ I didnâ€™t excuse myself either. When I messed up, Iâ€™d internally count the ways I cut corners and failedÂ toÂ live up to my own expectations.
Barbâ€™s judgment always came to mind in respect to my mother as well. Over the years, after telling a story about my momâ€™s impatience orÂ pessimism, Iâ€™ve heard, over and over again, that she probably did the best she could. Usually Iâ€™d keep silent to avoid sounding petty and unforgiving. But inside, Iâ€™d be saying, â€œI think she could have done better. I think she wasnâ€™t really trying.â€
And it may actually be true that few people do their very best most of the time. Barb and I are probably right. Everyone who gossips knows itâ€™s wrong to gossip. Everyone binging on chocolate chip cookies knows it’s not healthful. Itâ€™s within most peopleâ€™s control not to hit their kids, or drive drunk, or cheat on a test, but they do it anyway. As IÂ was writingÂ the end of my book about my mother, however, I realized that this attitude wasnâ€™t doing me any favors.
I realized it didnâ€™t matter whether a harsh judgment was true, because its result was resentment and criticism. In contrast, a best-they-could attitude makes for a kinder, gentler life. If we assume this about others and ourselves, we allow for another chance, when we might actually get closer to being our best selves. Itâ€™s better, at least after a respectable period of fuming and/or self-flagellation, to just let it go. â€œHow futile to hold a grudge,â€ I say near the end of Missing, â€œagainst someone so sad.â€
I came upon these reflections after listening to the song â€œCircle Danceâ€ by Bonnie Raitt, which she reportedly wrote about her dad, the singer John Raitt. I should point out that, unlike the parent in Raittâ€™s song, my mother never left. She put dinner on the table seven nights a week, washed and ironed our clothes, and drove us to school when we missed the bus, which was, for me, quite often. Getting up in the morning was an area where I didnâ€™t always do my best.
I give my mom credit for what she did and assume now that she just wasnâ€™t able to do the rest. Whether itâ€™s true or not, Iâ€™m saying she did the best she could. You can look up the lyrics to Bonnie Raittâ€™s song, but youâ€™d do much better to listen to it here.