Assume the Best About People
I learned something important watching the Superbowl this past Sunday (and not that defense wins championships, though it appears they do). What I learned came in the aftermath, as we collectively went crazy assuming the very worst about two quarterbacks. We seem to do this, assume the worst about people, when we could just as easily assume the best. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and I pondered it again for much of the day yesterday. I think I understand why this happens, and what we can do to fix it.
You may have already seen the video below. For the sports-agnostic, Eli Manning is the young man in the back. His older brother is Peyton Manning, the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Denver just scored a touchdown to go up late in the game against the Carolina Panthers. It appears his brother is about to win his second championship, tying Eli with two Superbowl rings. The rest of the family is going bonkers. Eli appears to be nervous and unhappy:
This is the story we immediately tell ourselves, and it is enlightening. It’s also sad. What we think of others, and what we say about them, is almost always about us and rarely about them. We project our fears and worries and dark secrets onto others. I believe we do this in order to normalize the worst parts of ourselves. It’s a bizarre type of self-forgiveness. We shout, “See! See! He’s just as capable as I am of being rude in this way. That means I’m okay too!”
Watch the video again with a different perspective. This time, don’t think of Eli as Peyton’s younger brother. Think of Eli as the quarterback of the New York Giants. The Broncos just went up by 12 points. Eli knows immediately that Denver should go for a 2 point conversion in this situation. He knows the game is not over and that Carolina can still win with two quick scores. Eli is known for his own late game heroics. He’s nervous that Denver’s coach might not know the proper call, as this is something coaches often get wrong, much to a quarterback’s dismay.
Two very different stories. But which is true? The cynic may stick to their belief that a younger brother was really rooting for his older brother’s team to fail, and this tells us everything about the cynic. But what’s great about this case is that we have more to go on. Down on the field, Peyton Manning wasn’t celebrating the touchdown for long. He was soon urging his teammates to huddle up and go for the 2-point conversion. He was looking anxiously at the sidelines to make sure the coach made the right call. The two Manning’s weren’t acting like brothers; they were both acting like quarterbacks. And the proof is in the same video above, if you look for it.
Watch Archie Manning, the father of the two young superstars. He is partially hidden in the back, but you can see the exact same look on his face. Do you want to know why Archie Manning isn’t jumping up and down like everyone else? He was an NFL quarterback, too. All three quarterback Mannings are acting the same way, the way a general does when the battle has turned but is not yet over. This is their own expression of love. Everyone in the family is loving Peyton in the only way they know how. For all of them, their love is full. When we miss seeing that, it’s a sign that our love is missing.
The love we’re missing when we do this is self-love. We only need to tear down others when we’re in the bad habit of tearing down ourselves. The key to turning this around is not just for us to go about defending the attacked, but also to love the attacker. I found out about the Eli video from a conversation with my brother yesterday. This was before I watched the video myself, saw Archie’s reaction, and remembered how stoic and nervous Peyton had been following that touchdown. After coming to a different conclusion than my brother, my first thought was to call him and stick up for Eli, to make sure my brother saw the love there.
What I did instead is write my brother to tell him that I love him. To say how proud I am of him. That I think he’s amazing. A truly great human being. My brother didn’t always hear this growing up. As the eldest, more was expected of him. And more mistakes were made as our parents sorted out — as all parents do — how best to raise their kids. I slipped under the radar, was more of a pain-in-the-ass, and got away with a lot. My brother had some really brutal life experiences, teachers telling him he was dumb (my brother is fucking brilliant), people saying he shouldn’t expect to do much physically because of his asthma (my brother is now strong as a bear. Stronger and taller than I am). I think my brother knows he’s awesome, but this is a mistake I make, to assume that he does. To assume he doesn’t need to hear it. I think we all assume everyone knows they are awesome, even as we are consumed with our own self-doubts. This is why we tear people down, because we think they aren’t already as fretful as we are. We’re lonely down here. We want the company. But a negative lens is not the way out.
Yes, we are all scared.
Yes, we feel unloved.
Yes, we feel like we don’t deserve to be loved.
That’s because we know and perseverate on every bad thing we’ve ever done, and every negative thing anyone has ever said about us or to us, and it wears us down. The antidote is clear, but we rarely dispense it. Maybe we fear building everyone around us up, thinking they’ll leave us even further behind. It’s like we’re all waiting to be loved, and no one wants to go first.
I’ve had a rough time with all of this the last few years. I’ve doubted myself. I’ve lost confidence in myself. I had to deal with a lot of negativity, because I focused on the rare negative comment and dismissed the thousands of positive comments. We all do this. We believe the criticism and doubt the praise. But the love that’s missing from our lives can’t be found out there, however hard we go looking for it, because we’re looking in the wrong place. The love that’s missing, again, is self-love. It’s the most important and powerful kind of love. When you know that you are good, deep-down, despite your faults and your mistakes and your shortcomings, then you can start to see the good in others. It can’t happen any other way.
While the Mannings were celebrating the family win, the opposing quarterback, Cam Newton, was despondent over his team’s loss. Cam has been a polarizing figure this season. He is only 26-years-old, but he just had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in NFL history. His team went 15-1 in the regular season. They crushed two quality opponents in the playoffs. They made it to the Superbowl. Cam was the regular season MVP. All season, he has been dancing and celebrating every victory. But with the loss, Cam was a different man. He barely answered questions. He wore a hoodie over his head, rather than his usual stylish garb. He left abruptly in the middle of his post-game interview, drawing fervent criticism.
The world positively went crazy with their indictments of this young man’s character. No one focused on Cam being there to shake Peyton’s hand after the game, just on his absolute low. They used that low to symbolize the whole man. It’s the same mistake we make when we let our faults and failures define ourselves. The world went crazy with indictments because the world is always going crazy with self-indictments. And it needs to stop. We are all Cam Newton. We have our bad days. Our terrible days. We all make mistakes. And yet we are good people.
It takes practice, but if you want to start loving yourself truly, so you can love others fully, start by reminding yourself of all your good traits. And then foster those traits. This doesn’t mean ignoring your faults and not working on them; it simply means having some balance. For everything shameful you do, there are a thousand wonderful little services you perform for loved ones, co-workers, friends, and the community. It can be as small as your awesome habit of using your blinkers when changing lanes. Or that you floss regularly. Or that you hug loved ones as often as you can. There is far more great in you than ill. Start seeing yourself fairly, and I promise you’ll start seeing others in the same light.
This is not a small thing, I assure you. This change in perspective and daily habit of forgiving and loving yourself will change your life. It has mine. It continues to impact me every day.
It all began with a friend telling me, in a convincing way, that what others thought about me had everything to do with them and nothing to do with me. Their criticism was an expression of their self-doubt. This not only kept me from judging myself through their eyes, it made me love my critics. I could empathize with their self-doubt. I started seeing the blackness in their hearts, and I wished I could make it go away. The more someone hated me, the more I loved them. Because their hate is not who I am. It’s who they are. And I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could comfort them.
Whoever you are, reading this, you know you are a good person. Sure, you screw up. Sure, you are scared. Yes, you fear the future. You fear others knowing you fully. We all do. You are great despite all of this, you just aren’t sure you’re allowed to feel that way. Part of tearing each other down has been to stigmatize anyone who builds themselves up. The last thing we want, again, is for everyone to tear off into happiness and leave us behind, alone. But this is not a race. It’s a team obstacle course. There’s a wall between all of us and our love for each other and ourselves. There’s not a single one of us who can scale that wall. We have to boost someone up to reach down for the rest of us. We all go, or no one goes.
Love yourself. Every day, love yourself more fully. And continue to do more of the things that generate that love. When you see all the good in you, you’ll begin to see the good in others. I promise you, this is not trite stuff. It’s not naive, and it’s not anything mystical or spiritual. It’s how our brains work, how we are built, how we protect ourselves from getting hurt and from feeling alone. We don’t have to feel alone. We are all more alike than we are different. We are Cam. We are Eli. We are good people. Assume the best, everyone. Starting with yourself.