Many years ago I remember telling my friend, Wayne, that he ought not attribute motives to another person. I assured him he couldn’t possibly know what was rattling around in someone else’s head. He acknowledged my rebuke and was repentant. A short while later he confronted me about the comments I had made about someone else’s motives saying, “Aren’t you the one who told me to never attribute motives?” Doh! I hate when that happens. I hate getting stuff I say thrown back in my face. But I realized he was right. And I realized how often I do it. Attributing motives is a common problem, I think.
Recently Eric and I were chatting and he pointed out that I had assumed something about him that wasn’t actually true. It made me sad to realize that my assumptions had come between us and that what I thought was true wasn’t in fact true. I had a narrative in my head that made assumptions about him that I completely believed.
Do you make up stories in your head about what other people are thinking or what they might believe about you? I do it a lot. I don’t bother to call and ask someone for help me because I’m sure they’re much too busy. I don’t believe another person really likes me so I assume they’d never want to have lunch with me. I try to avoid someone who makes me uncomfortable because in my head they remind me of someone else with whom I have an awkward relationship. I reject people first because I assume they will reject me.
I make up ‘facts’ in my head that justify my false beliefs. ‘They’ looked the other way on Sunday when I walked into the room so they must not like me. He told me how busy he was so he’s probably way too busy to ever meet with me. That pastor has a seminary degree so he must be way smarter than me and not interested in anything I might offer. I make up narratives in my head and they sound like truth so I declare them to be true. I live them out as if they were true. Perhaps the couple who ‘looked away’ were distracted by someone else and would love to engage me. Perhaps the busy person would make a place in their busy schedule because they thoroughly enjoy my company. Perhaps the formally educated pastor would greatly benefit from knowledge I’ve gained as a ‘street theologian’ and would be delighted to hear it. But I’ll never know. I’ll never know because the narrative in my head has become ‘truth’ even though it probably isn’t.
We often base the narratives we write on past interactions. The busy person told me on three different occasions just how busy they were so the narrative I build in my head is that they are speaking a ‘code’ to me and letting me know subtly that they have no interest in hanging out with me so I never make a fourth attempt. Our narratives are based on our misgivings about our own value. They erupt out of our sense of self worth. Sometimes our assumptions come from how we would act if roles were reversed. Our assumptions often reveal more about us than they do the other person. That is, the narrative in our head that assumes the other person is too busy to meet with us might actually be revealing our belief that we’re not worthy of someone else’s attention and time.
I often ask people to speak their longings. What do you truly want? When we take risks to speak our longings we can be deeply hurt. People can wound our hearts. Perhaps the person I long to have as a friend would rather not spend any time with me. Perhaps the formally educated pastor will think I’m an idiot. There is no guarantee that the narrative I believe is false. But assuming a lie will also damage me. It might well keep me from enjoying greater intimacy with another person.
I’m hesitant to post this. What if people disagree? What if I’m wrong? What if no one reads what I wrote? The narrative builds in my head. I’ve written stuff like this before and no one responded. That must mean I’m stupid and people are being kind so they’re hiding the truth from me by not engaging. And now that I’m writing this paragraph they’re only responding because they feel manipulated by me. It’s funny how the stories build in my head. Do they build in yours?
To not attribute motives and to not build assumptions is high risk. Offering ourselves to each other is scary. It can lead to all sorts of rejection and distancing. We can discover uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Truth is like that. Of course, it can also set us free. But only when we speak the truth in love.