Dale’s Rules of Life: Be Slow in Assigning Motives

I have these rules. By now you’ve probably figured that out. One of my rules goes like this, be slow in assigning motives to others. This rule is not catchy, flashy, or cute. It is, in fact, plain and somewhat boring. But let’s dig into it anyway.

We all do this. We all assign motives to others. When someone does something, especially something we don’t like, we try to figure out the “why” of their actions. We often assume this answer without asking and create it from our own experiences and imagination.

Listen to the world (especially the news) and you’ll see that the fact to motive ratio is way out of whack. We don’t want to know what happened as much as why it happened. The what may be indisputable, but the why is often subject to interpretation at best and propaganda at worst.

As I write this there is a firestorm of propaganda around two facts. One person says that something happened in their teen years, the other says they didn’t do it. Those are the only facts available. But around those two facts are a hurricane of propaganda from several sides trying to cement in place the motives of these two people. Even though their true motives are not known and may never be known. The two involved have become less than human and are now simply pawns to be used or removed from the board if possible.

When we assign motives to others we are dehumanizing and devaluing them. It doesn’t matter if all the observable actions add up to a certain conclusion. We cannot know what is in another person’s heart unless they honestly and truthfully reveal it. When we assign motives to others we are, in essence, giving ourselves permission to reject them, ignore them, or cause them harm.

Not only does this happen in the grand scale of international and national politics but also in our homes, in our families, and our workplace. For instance, when a child is denied a cookie they may scream back “you hate me.” That is assigning motives to another in its simplest form. Does the parent hate the child? Of course not, but it is the only reason the child can imagine for denying them the joy of a cookie.

Let me be clear. It is good to try and put ourselves in someone else’s place and understand where they are coming from. That is not putting a motive on them but trying to understand what their motive really is. Doing this, living for a few moments or days in someone else’s shoes is rehumanizing them and valuing them. It means we care enough to truly understand instead of dreaming up motives based on limited facts.

This rule is bound to the Golden Rule of treating others the way I wish to be treated (Luke 6:31).  I intensely dislike when people assume why I did something without even bothering to ask or to understand. So even though it does happen to me I’m not going to do that to others.

Sometimes though even the person involved doesn’t know why they did something. When a police officer shoots someone in the line of duty was it because of fear, racism, or training? They may not even know themselves so what gives us the right to confidently declare their motive? We weren’t there, we were not in their shoes, we don’t share their life experience, so (even if we have video) how can we say what was in someone else’s heart. Likewise, how can we assign a motive to the actions of the victim? Or, bringing this closer to home. How can we assign motives to someone in our family, our church, or someone in our workplace, or on the highway, or at the store since we are missing many of those same facts? We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

Instead of assigning motives we need to take up the more difficult task, the riskier path, of getting to know someone. Of asking honest questions designed to build a bridge of understanding. This requires flexibility in our thinking and the willingness to be wrong about our assumptions. It requires removing previously held assumptions based on experience, race, gender, heritage, position, education, political views, and religion so we may truly see and understand the individual.

This Dale’s rule may not be cute, flashy, or attractive but I think it’s important and needed in the chaos of today’s world.

Dale Heinold
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