For more than thirty years my mother served my father his breakfast. Every morning she set a bowl of cornflakes with milk, two slices of buttered toast and a cup of coffee before him. My father, with seeming appreciation, quietly ate his breakfast and went out to work. The rest of us ate Grape Nuts, Cheerios, Wheaties, oatmeal and an array of other cereals. My father’s breakfast almost never varied because my mother assumed that was what he liked. If anyone had asked her why she filled his bowl with cornflakes and buttered two slices of toast for him every day, she would have said, “Because, that is what he wants.”
One morning I sat across the breakfast table from my 80-year-old father as my mother placed his usual breakfast in front of him. My dad sat for a moment looking at possibly the 10,000th bowl of cornflakes he had faced in his life and said, “Don’t we have ANY other kind of cereal?”
As a parent I quickly learned never to answer the question, “Does your daughter eat…?” If I said, “No, she doesn’t like spinach,” the child ate it like candy. If I answered, “Yes, she loves spaghetti,” the kid mortified me by picking at the food with a sickened look on her face.
We assume we know what others are thinking. “She thinks she’s so smart.” “He thinks he’s so much better than the rest of us.” “They think they’re so important.” We attribute motives to those around us without really ever asking or having been told what they think or want. We are all too eager to attribute negative motives for things others say and do.
I attended a one room rural school until fourth grade. On my first day of school at the big school in town, my mother took me to my new classroom and introduced me to my teacher. I must have been delayed by the registration process because most of the other students were already in their seats. Years later my friends told me that I stood next to the teacher’s desk with my hands on my hips. They said they all thought, “Boy, does she think she’s important!”
My life before fourth grade had been a very sheltered one. In reality, all I could think about as I stood in front of all of those new kids was that my red skirt and white blouse were handed down and my brown leather shoes weren’t new. I had never been in a class with so many students. I had been the only third grader in the rural school less than a mile from my home. There were only nine or ten students in the whole school when it closed. In reality, I was anything but confident. I was terrified.
Often we are insulted because we assume we know other’s motives. Rather than ask the other person why they said what they said, we hold on to hurt feelings. We become angry when we think someone is trying to put us down. We are sure we know what they are thinking. My mother assumed that my father liked cornflakes because he never complained and always quietly ate his breakfast. Because my friends were nervous and scared by the first day of school, they only saw my hands on my hips. They missed the fact that my knees were shaking. They misinterpreted my shyness as being “stuck up.”
I am distrustful of arguments which begin, “Republicans think…,” “Liberals want…,” “Those people feel…,” or “God wants.” We can only really know what others want, feel or think if they tell us and it coincides with their actions. Everything else is speculation. Arguments attributing less than noble motives to one’s opponents are usually designed to discredit the other’s position. Casting aspersions on someone else’s motives does not require formation of a better solution or a well-formed argument to the contrary. Making false assumptions about others’ thinking doesn’t result in solutions to problems.
My mother only needed to ask my dad what he wanted for breakfast rather than assuming she knew what he wanted. My classmates and I only had to get to know each other to realize that we were all afraid on the first day of school.
Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains