Many years ago, my good friend Barb said something I never forgot. “People shouldn’t say they did the best they could. Nobody ever does the best they can,” she remarked with the wise authority of a person in her early twenties. Struck by the comment’s harshness, I was also impressed with Barb’s bracing insight. I decided she was right. Ever since then, whenever someone said, “Oh, well. I did my best,” I’d think to myself, “Oh, yeah? I bet you could have done better.” I didn’t excuse myself either. When I messed up, I’d internally count the ways I cut corners and failed to live up to my own expectations.
Barb’s judgment always came to mind in respect to my mother as well. Over the years, after telling a story about my mom’s impatience or pessimism, I’ve heard, over and over again, that she probably did the best she could. Usually I’d keep silent to avoid sounding petty and unforgiving. But inside, I’d be saying, “I think she could have done better. I think she wasn’t really trying.”
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 it’s wrong to gossip. Everyone binging on chocolate chip cookies knows it’s not healthful. It’s within most people’s control not to hit their kids, or drive drunk, or cheat on a test, but they do it anyway. As I was writing the end of my book about my mother, however, I realized that this attitude wasn’t doing me any favors.
I realized it didn’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. It’s better, at least after a respectable period of fuming and/or self-flagellation, to just let it go. “How futile to hold a grudge,” I say near the end of Missing, “against someone so sad.”
I came upon these reflections after listening to the song “Circle Dance” by Bonnie Raitt, which she reportedly wrote about her dad, the singer John Raitt. I should point out that, unlike the parent in Raitt’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 didn’t always do my best.
I give my mom credit for what she did and assume now that she just wasn’t able to do the rest. Whether it’s true or not, I’m saying she did the best she could. You can look up the lyrics to Bonnie Raitt’s song, but you’d do much better to listen to it here.