No, we’re not all “doing the best we can”

My friend is on fire this crisp September morning as we walk. “I hate when people say that,” she says, with this urgent staccato certainty that is so very her, “What does it even mean?!” She punctuates the air with her free hand, the one unencumbered by taut dog leash. I cannot disagree and I understand the intensity of her annoyance. In the midst of the pandemic crisis, there is much heroism to be sure, both dramatic and mundane. But there is are also half-responses and partial effort, sometimes even utter incompetence and venality. It’s jarring, then, when someone steps in to remind us in hushed spiritual tones, “Go easy. Remember, everyone is doing the best that they can.”

From one point of view, it’s obviously true that we’re all doing our best. The fact that we are all products of our biology and environment, both limited and enabled by nature and nurture, could be taken to mean that everything about us, including our decisions and actions, are determined by forces beyond our control. From that grim metaphysical point of view, we all do the best that we can simply by virtue of the fact that we do whatever we do rather than something else. Happily, we can backfill rationalizations ad nauseam to make any action fit the deterministic framework. Whatever anyone ever does can be construed as being their best because, given who they are, there is nothing else they could have been expected to do. But this surely is not what most people are thinking when they use the phrase in casual conversation.

Rather, urging others to “go easy” because “everyone is doing the best they can” seems mostly like a reminder to be compassionate and understanding, along the lines of “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” This is good stuff. Even in normal times, whatever that means, few of us have it easy, at least not for long, and certainly not forever. And we surely do need to consider that others are struggling too, and in ways with which we can, and should, empathize. The Buddhist parable of the woman who begged him to bring her dead son back to life treads this ground. I will do as you ask, the Buddha says, but first you must go and find a common mustard seed. The catch? It must come from a household that has been untouched by the sorrows of death. The woman returns — without the seed, of course — transfigured by her new awareness of the universality of suffering.

From another point of view, though, we are poorly served by being told, sometimes in scolding tones, that “we are all doing the best that we can.” While this may be trivially true from a transcendent point of view, it is evidently not true from an empirical and pragmatic one. From a mundane point of view, in fact, down here in the weeds of life, it is vanishingly rare that anyone ever “does the best they can do.” As my ridiculously smart friend pointedly asked, “How could anyone ever even know what that is?” In fact, lots of managers now know to avoid asking employees to “do their best” because most of us will follow through with “just good enough.” Not only do very few of us probably even know what exactly would constitute doing one’s best, but, in most cases, we are probably simultaneously clear that, whatever that might be, we’re not doing it.

This truism that “we are doing our best,” then, is especially disingenous and more than a little condescending. If I were asked, in just about any given situation, “Are you doing your best?” and I were being honestly self-reflective, I would pretty much always have to concede that I was not. Whether cleaning the toilet or writing a book chapter, can’t I see that further refinements are always possible? “Doing one’s best,” as my friend pointed out, is intrinsically and eternally open ended. It often functions, then, not as description of how we think things actually are but as something we say when we don’t want to be subjected to criticism, when we want to excuse others from such judgement — probably, at least partly, so we won’t be judged in return — or when we want to avoid self-scrutiny. And this is why this apparently innocuous phrase, so insightfully helpful in some contexts — especially philosophical or spiritual ones — can be so infuriatingly shallow and dismissive in others, especially practical and political ones.

Because of its status as a sort of quasi-spiritual truism, “We’re all doing the best we can,” functions as a conversation stopper even in situations where all concerned damn well have a right to expect better of one another and themselves. In the midst of the pandemic, it’s an especially dangerous excuse for abjectly poor professional and political performance: You can’t expect much from me (or her or them) in these “difficult times” because “emergency,” “stress,” “anxiety,” “pressure.” In short, rather than maintaining, or even raising, the bar for responsiveness and effectiveness — can we expect no one to rise to the occasion? — this truism helps turn the crisis into a catch all excuse for doing a bad job.

And it only works because it chastens those who would persist in critiquing anyone’s performance. This, of course, is why my friend was so deeply annoyed: She knows that sometimes she’s told, “They’re doing the best they can” to shame her into silence. After all, only an insensitive, unspiritual oaf would persist in demanding better from others after hearing that, right? I mean, this is a crisis. Isn’t it obvious that everyone is doing the best they can?

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