We live in a culture where people sit on the sidelines and pass a lot of strong judgements. We look at people we don’t know and decide whether they’re good or bad people. We look at complicated situations and difficult projects and cleanly label them successes or failures—despite having little understanding of what went on behind the scenes. We take an instance of behavior or a tiny interaction—the way someone talked to us at the grocery store or a decision that they made—and extrapolate out who that person is and what motivates them.
As we’ve talked about before, the result of these snap judgements is not just misery for us, but an overwhelmingly negative view of humanity and of the world. It’s no way to live. Which is why when you feel that urge to decide—as an outsider or an observer—that you know who someone is or what it means, you should stop yourself. Stop yourself and consider this prompt from Epictetus:
“Until you know their reasons, how do you know whether they have acted wrongly?”
What Epictetus is not saying is that you should sit there and try to think about why Hitler and Stalin murdered so many people. He’s not saying that right and wrong are relative and that truly awful things can be excused. He’s saying, in the vein of Socrates, that we need to take a minute and really think about what we don’t know in a situation. We need to consider that, with the exception of mental illness, (which is its own kind of reason), most people have a logic for their actions—and that logic is usually not to try to hurt you or anyone else. They are just doing the best they can.
David Foster Wallace speaks about this in his famous “This is Water” speech, after several allusions to his frustration with bad drivers:
It's not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am—it is actually I who am in his way. And so on.
You don’t know that someone acted wrongly or is an asshole or that they totally screwed a situation up, because you don’t know the full story. You don’t know their reasons or their side of things. And what do the Stoics tell us to do when we don’t have all the facts about something?
They tell us to suspend judgement.