Giving Others the Benefit of the Doubt

There’s a saying in aikido, “There are many lessons on the mat.” It means that when we’re practicing aikido we’re not just learning aikido, we’re also learning about life. For example, when someone grabs my wrist too hard and I get angry but don’t say anything, I eventually learn that it would be more useful to ask him not to grab so hard. I may also notice that it’s difficult for me to ask for what I want in other places in my life, that I suffer needlessly because of it, and that I blame others and justify my blaming instead of taking action. Many lessons . . .

I swim daily and notice that I have a new saying, similar to the aikido one, that goes “There are many lessons in the pool.” Every day I seem to have another internal learning adventure.

An example of this is the lane partner dilemma. Some swimmers are easy and quiet as they cut through the water; others splash. Some swim straight and stay in their own part of the lane, leaving plenty of room. Others flail and lunge, seemingly unaware that there is anyone else around. Just like in aikido, with some partners cooperation is easy. As if we were dancing, we know the timing and the moves and we flow easily with each other. With others it’s messy, and we’re stepping on each other’s toes all the time. Ever feel this way? At the pool, as in aikido, I find I can make the situation messier or easier depending on my attitude and actions.

Lesson #1: I am given many dance partners in life. Whether the dance is easy or difficult is influenced at least in part by me.

Please Pick Another Lane.

Which brings me to Lesson #2. One of the “difficult partners” seems to like to swim with me. I can’t figure it out. Even when there’s an empty lane, he gets in mine. He swims more slowly than I do, so I have to wait for him or double back so as not to “pass” him, which we’re not allowed to do at our pool. He splashes and his swimming is erratic, his arms swinging way out to the side and occasionally accidentally hitting me. When I see him coming I think, Oh no, please pick another lane. But he doesn’t.

One morning I came to the pool late and this gentleman was already swimming. There was an open lane next to his, and I sat on the edge and was doing my warm-ups when he came up for air. He looked over and motioned to me that he was getting out and I could have his lane. I thanked him but stayed where I was. I had a lane. He explained that he really liked his lane because there were no jets gushing water into the pool. The jets are very strong and bother him. The lane he was in – the lane I usually swim in – doesn’t have them. Aha! I say to myself. He doesn’t get into my lane just to annoy me. He dislikes the other lanes. And now he’s trying to give me the “good” lane. What a nice person!

Lesson #2: It’s not always about me.

The Benefit of the Doubt.

A third lesson from the pool is that people surprise me if I let them. Recently I got into the hot tub (“many lessons in the hot tub”) to relax after my swim. There was a man in there swishing his legs back and forth really hard, churning the water into waves. I closed my eyes and leaned against the edge of the tub and tried to mellow out. Impossible. I opened my eyes and looked at him, hoping he would see that he was disturbing me. Oblivious. I closed my eyes again. Getting worse. I was practically drowning in the churning hot water. I opened my eyes and looked again. Oblivious. I sighed out loud. Nope.

Okay, time to either get out of the tub or say something. I remembered that curiosity usually works better than accusation, and I asked, “Is that an exercise you’re doing?” He noticed me and smiled – a really nice smile – and said that yes, it was an exercise recommended by his doctor. He used to jog, loved jogging, but his knees could no longer support that activity. In fact, his knees could barely support walking, and swimming was one of the few things that helped; the swooshing motion strengthened the ligaments. He went on to talk about jogging, swimming, disappointment and his efforts to reinvigorate his knees and stay in shape. What a nice man, I thought.

Lesson #3: People usually have a positive intention. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

The benefit of the doubt: what does it mean? What doubt? Well, as I swim up and back and up and back I think it must mean giving other people the benefit that derives from doubting my preconceived notions about their motives. Is he really getting in my lane just to annoy me? Probably not. Is he churning up the water to keep others out? I think I’ll doubt that assumption and see what happens.

Usually what happens is that I discover a genuinely nice person behind the fog of my assumptions and have a really fun swim.

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