Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Doing Our Best

When I was growing up my father often said: “Everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with.” What I want you to know about this is that he did not say this lightly, did not come to this from a life of ease or privilege. He had grown up poor with an abusive alcoholic father and an exhausted mother. As a child he and his mother were beaten almost every night by my grandfather who eventually (after my father was an adult) committed suicide- hung himself in the barn of the dirt farm where my father had grown up. And still, my father held that everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with. He would occasionally add, with a sadness that made my heart ache: “Some days people don’t have much to work with.”

Consider for just a moment- what if this is true? What if you and I and every person on the planet, in this moment are doing the best we can with the inner and outer resources we have?

Let me say what this does not mean: It does not mean that “It’s all good.” Some of it is not good. Some of what is happening right now in the world- the abuse of children, the destruction of the environment, the exploitation of people, all the ways in which human beings create suffering for themselves and others- is not good.

Nor does it mean that we have no responsibility for the suffering we create. It simply means that saying we “should” do better with the resources (awareness, information, perception, education etc.) we have is a set up for blame, shame and maintaining the current level of suffering. If we could do better with the resources we have, we would.

So, if everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with in this moment, AND we sometimes create suffering for ourselves and each other- what does it mean to want to create change and alleviate suffering?

It means we have to recognize we are doing the best we can with the resources we have, and (instead of beating each other or ourselves up for not doing better) find, invite and accept more resources.

What does this look like in one small human life? It looks like open inquiry into what is. It looks like an honest evaluation of our individual and collective resources. And honest evaluations pretty much have to be free of judgement and shame to be even close to accurate. Resources can be everything from how much sleep I had last night to collective beliefs about why many are poor while some are rich. But let's stick with the small stuff- if I find myself impatient with a sales clerk and I know I have not had enough sleep in days (for this particular body/mind/heart/soul-self), I have a responsibility to get myself to bed as soon as possible so I don’t spread suffering (however minor) with sharp comments tomorrow. This might entail cancelling other plans (and letting go of my attachment to these plans) and/or asking for help (seeking assistance with children in my care, asking my neighbour to turn down the noise etc.) so the sleep I need is available. But expecting myself to be more patient and kind tomorrow with the same exhaustion I had today is a set up when I have just experienced what my “best” looks like when I am this tired.

I’m using a very simple example, and when we start to move into global collective problems and the resources needed, (for example- awareness of inter-dependence and a willingness to share material resources so that all can flourish in meaningful ways) it gets admittedly more complicated. Not impossible, just more complicated.

But it’s not about getting it perfect. Nor is it about trying harder. It’s about recognizing we are doing the best we can with what we have to work with and, if our “best” is creating suffering, seeking, asking for and receiving the resources we need to alleviate that suffering.

What would we have to lose by seeing ourselves or others this way? Justification for putting out of our hearts those aspects of ourselves or others that are causing suffering; fear that keeps us from being willing to create real change by trying something different instead of insisting that we/they just have to do better with the same inner and outer resources. And what might we gain? A doorway into deeper compassion and necessary forgiveness.

So, try out this for one week: Every time you berate yourself for not doing “better” (being more disciplined, more compassionate, more giving, more present. . . the possibilities are endless!) remind yourself, “I am doing the best I can with the what I have right now.” And if the best you can do is causing suffering for yourself or someone else, ask yourself what might help you do something different. Do you need more sleep, a bit of solitude and quiet, community, access to another’s knowledge or wisdom or support, a shift in perspective or awareness? Ask for help whether you have an idea of what you need or not. Ask others who may have resources to share or know of resources you don’t. Ask in prayer addressing the sacred presence that is both what we are and that which is large than us, in whatever words allow you to send out a voice from your heart. And then, pay attention and receive what is needed when it is offered.

Watch what happens if you try this. Where is there resistance? What hopes or fears are sparked? I will tell you the truth. When I do this, it makes my heart ache a little. To soften to ourselves and the world brings us to the knowledge of how former recrimination and hardness have perpetuated suffering. And I take another breath, reminding myself that I was doing the best I could then, and now- with the resources/awareness this insight brings- I can do something different.


  1. Apologies to those who left a comment- I got slap-happy with the delete buttons on drafts and took down this blog by accident and lost all the comments. Sorry!

  2. Hi Oriah

    I just wanted to say I have the deepest admiration for your father. Both my parents have hurt me deeply over the years and continue to hurt me and let me down time and again. I try so hard to remember that we're all doing the best we can but when a parent can't be there or chooses not to be there for their own child it is so difficult to accept. I have come so far on my own spiritual journey but accepting and forgiving my parents is a hurdle I continue to struggle with. Hopefully in time it will come...

  3. What a wonderful concept - I so encouraging. I lost my husband 3 yrs ago & have been sort of coasting through life. I am at the point that I feel strong enough to make changes & this really has inspired me & given me a path through the darkness. Thank you!

  4. Thank you Oriah for this simple reminder. As Gandhi put it best: "Be the change you want to see in the world." What's interesting though, about what you pointed out, is that sometimes we don't know what we want, we just know something needs to change, because we don't like what we see is going on, either in ourselves or in the relationships we have with those that we love. Hence, everyone does the best they can with what they have to work with, and your post has reminded me that there is always another option, there are answers out there that we can discover. It just may require we try something different, and while that may be scary, we may surprise ourselves and be graciously rewarded.

    Have a fun and safe Halloween:)


    Nattie from Ptown

  5. I really appreciate this. My heart says exactly the same thing, but my mouth (and my fingers) haven't ever been able to put it into words so well. Beautiful, as usual.