Listening with one’s heart

At the faculty meeting, I scribbled a note to myself. New to Catholic education, I was in the midst of learning to be super-organized with administrative details as this allowed me to maximize time for my teaching. I looked up as my name was mentioned yet again. Evidently, it was just going to be one of those days. Someone said that all AP courses except mine had been “cleared.” Implication was that I had not done my work. Suddenly, all eyes were on me and I most definitely did not like what I saw in them. Even worse, I had no idea what “cleared” meant so I’d have to go speak privately with this person. Thankfully, the principal tabled the discussion. 

Later that day, I sat in that administrator’s office. Truthfully, I was not happy to be there as I was still disturbed by the morning’s episode. The administrator started by saying, “The principal demanded that I apologize to you.” The Holy Spirit guided my response. I replied, “You hurt me, but I know you were only thinking out loud and did not intend to do so.” In surprise, she said, “How can you know that?” I replied, “I know who you are as a person so that has to be the answer.” 

Do you recognize the above story as an example of granting the benefit of the doubt? Many resources define benefit of the doubt as a favorable decision when there is insufficient evidence to warrant that decision. To me, that definition is inadequate. Benefit of the doubt is, in truth, a suspension of judgment. It is listening with one’s heart to recognize the Spirit of God within another. Most importantly, it is a choice to await the expression of God’s love (the good) that the Holy Spirit will work through that other person when he/she is ready to freely respond to do so. Granting the benefit of the doubt is really being or walking in God’s love: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). 

One qualification is needed. There will be times after one has granted the benefit of the doubt that the other person will come back with continued behaviors in a pattern that indicates a hurtful intent. With that evidence, one can then decide an appropriate response. Jesus speaks directly to each of our hearts to allow us to gently, but firmly draw that personal boundary between being a forgiving person and being walked upon. 

The New Testament is filled with examples where Jesus granted the benefit of the doubt to others. The recipients each proved worthy of that regard. When Jesus came back to the disciples in the garden, He granted them the benefit of the doubt and invited them once again to come pray with Him. After His Resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved Him. This gave Peter the chance to forgive himself (for denying Jesus) and to choose how to continue to serve Jesus. With love, Jesus calmly awaited James’ and John’s decisions. Was their final choice glory or to be followers (servants) as God had called them to be? 

Today’s world overemphasizes the individual and thus sees application of the benefit of the doubt as weakness. This practice is thus one example of how we each are called to be in the world, but not of the world. Henri Nouwen says, “I know that I have to move from speaking about Jesus to letting Him speak within me, from thinking about Jesus to letting Him think within me, from acting for and with Jesus to letting Him act through me. I know the only way for me to see the world is to see it through His eyes.” Listening between the lines and being willing to grant the benefit of the doubt actually is looking inside another person to his/her heart and seeing him/her just as Our Lord does. In addition, the love we feel when we are recipients of the benefit of the doubt is actually God’s call for us to choose to find a way to manifest His love to others. 

Back to that administrator, choosing to see one another as Jesus sees us allowed the two of us to forge a professional relationship based upon genuine conversation and mutual trust. One day, I had a senior throw a very virulent tantrum. This administrator was correct that fear lay behind his atrocious behavior. She asked me to give him the benefit of the doubt. I erased his zero and worked intensely with him after school. He respectfully worked on his writing skills and finally finished the paper. The day of graduation, he thanked us both for the second chance. God’s love will change our world each and every time we have the courage to serve Him by bringing it to our world. 

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer and a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River. 

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