The benefit of the doubt

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Offering observantia to those in authority can make everyone’s lives better

I started my first year of high school feeling indignant toward one of my teachers. With complete insensitivity he violated the unwritten but sacred rule that no serious lectures should happen on the first day of school. I thought every civilized person understood that the first day was an academic neutral zone. We students had to show up to school, we couldn’t help that. But teachers had to avoid actually trying to teach us anything. Civilized people knew that the first day was reserved for seeing who was in our classes and lamenting the end of summer vacation.

Not this teacher. He gave us a lecture that required actual note-taking. Then, not satisfied with that, he actually gave us an assignment: a paper due the next day in which he forbade the use of passive-voice verbs. I was not pleased.

By the end of the first week, though, my outrage was a distant memory. This teacher taught us things about art, poetry and literature that enrich my life to this day. His excellence commanded my respect and attention.

However, my resistance should never have been there in the first place. I realize now that my expectations as a student were unreasonable. They made my life and my teachers’ lives more difficult.

Like many students, I was far too quick to judge my teachers and act as if they needed to earn my attention. I wasn’t terribly disruptive in class (at least I hope not). However, I did not offer them what St. Thomas Aquinas calls observantia.

In his excellent book The Four Cardinal Virtues, the 20th-century German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper explains that “Observantia indicates the respect we feel inwardly and express outwardly toward those persons who are distinguished by their office or some dignity.” This respect predisposes us to give teachers, referees, pastors and other people in authority the benefit of the doubt as an extension of our respect for the common good of society.

In this postmodern era, we tend not to give people in authority the benefit of the doubt. Having learned to critically evaluate government and corporate power structures, we frequently extend that critical approach to people who hold authority in our personal lives. We tend to project upon them our existential dissatisfaction as if it were their job to make us happy. We tend think first and foremost about what we regard as our rights, and to forget our responsibilities. The result is that we sometimes give a hard time to those, like teachers and supervisors, to whom we owe attentiveness.

This makes their jobs harder. It makes our lives harder too. When we lack the “inner assent” of observantia, our relationships lack the trust that helps to make every interaction easier. Once my excellent high school teacher overcame the initial resistance of our class’ dislike of that first assignment, he established an excellent rapport with us. We actually came to class eager to hear what he had to say. This made it easier for him to teach and for us to learn. I have to wonder, though, how much more would we have learned if we had given him our attention earlier? Or, more importantly, how much would I have learned from our other less charismatic teachers, if I had paid better attention to them?

Having said all this, we should note that nothing about observantia prevents us from correcting injustice or critically evaluating the actions of those in authority. As Christians, we have an obligation to correct abuse of power and protect those who need help. God calls us to offer charity to all.

Nonetheless, we could benefit from practicing a little more observantia. In particular, we parents and grandparents have the opportunity to encourage our children to practice observantia by giving teachers, coaches and pastors the benefit of the doubt. For the most part, let’s overlook their faults and find opportunities to praise the difficult work they do. Like my excellent high school teacher, they can make a lasting impact for the better on our lives and the lives of our children — and we can help them do it!

Northwest Catholic - September 2018

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.