In the Scheme of Things: Presumption of Innocence

I felt the malice immediately, arriving without warning via my website, with no return email. Her poisoned-laced words were intended to sting, and they did, although perhaps not in the way she intended. Mostly my heart ached with sadness for her long held pain.

At the bottom of the message was the name of an old friend I’d lost contact with years before. Her message accused me of betraying her trust decades ago. But despite the venom released at me, there was no mention or explanation of what it was that I did in my twenties that caused her to reach that conclusion, or why she held onto her anger all these years. All I knew was someone I still cared about saw me responsible for something that upset her.

The message haunted me, not because of what it said, but because I never knew I hurt her. I never knew there was festering pain attributed to my words or actions. Certainly, there are people I know I’ve hurt, but this was different. Am I accountable when someone feels slighted or wounded by something I did or said, or didn’t do or didn’t say, and I never knew it? How we perceive another’s actions, motives or intentions is subject to our interpretation.

I’m reminded of how inaccurate my own assumptions have been. I remember feeling fortified in a position of righteous anger awhile back, stubbornly waiting for a friend to apologize. He never did. Finally, I decided I needed to talk to him because I was in emotional pain. I initiated one of those “we have to talk” talks, sharing what I was feeling and why I thought him responsible. What surprised me was his version. Turns out I jumped to conclusions, made assumptions, interpreted actions, and carved the hurt scar myself. It’s not the first time.

There is the presumption of innocence when charged with a crime. It seems to me, that same presumption should apply to everyday occurrences, especially with family and friends. Incorrect assumptions or the conclusions we draw about another’s motives or intentions can cause us unnecessary and lingering pain, insecurity, and distrust. We can even carve wounds and build emotional scars out of small-nothings that we interpret as big-somethings.

In these times of heightened stress, busyness, and information overload, I think a presumption of innocence is a pretty good first assumption to make about each other. Most of us aren’t intentionally trying to hurt our friends and family — we’re trying to deal with our own lives, craziness, and “stuff;” we’re trying to do the right things.

Most people are doing the best they can given the complexities life throws them. Still, I’m not naïve enough to believe all people have good intentions. But I am life-seasoned enough to know that most people, most of the time, do.

In the scheme of things, there are multiple perspectives to every story, other moccasins to walk in, and insights to be shared. But the operative word is “shared” — we need to talk to each other (which is not the same as texting), and listen deeply when anger sparks, misunderstandings emerge, or hurts fester. As author Barbara De Angelis reminds: “The more anger towards the past you carry in your heart, the less capable you are of loving in the present.”

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