03/20/2012 05:54 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

Assuming Positive Intent

For a nation where one of the core tenets is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, we have sure lost the ability to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. I see it in both on the national stage and more locally and personally. Today it got very personal.

I took a fall on ice some weeks ago and while I will make a full recovery, I had some fairly significant injuries that left me housebound and more or less lying down for weeks. Some have gotten better; others are still causing difficulties. I was delighted when my recovery finally progressed to the point where I could drive short distances, enough to not have to continue to rely on the kindness of friends to get myself to the doctor or my children to their practices and lessons. It was a treat to even do mundane things like pick up groceries. But walking any distance still exhausts me and increases my pain, so I took advantage of a temporary handicapped parking permit.

I did not think much about it as I parked in a space at the local mall to drop my fourth grader off to sell Girl Scout cookies at a booth inside. I returned to the car a few minutes later to find a note on my windshield, castigating me for parking there when no one in the car today needed the placard and suggesting that I was setting a terrible example for my girls. It reduced me to tears. I had been judged and found wanting, without ever having had a chance to explain that there really was someone in the car who needed that help, even if I didn't limp too much today.

It discourages me that I see this all around. We make assumptions based on limited information about individual circumstances. A local politician here in Minnesota equates those who get food stamps with wild animals who become overly dependent on human hand-outs, without understanding what brought those people to the point of needing assistance. They must just be lazy, no? People assume that anyone on birth control is promiscuous, without considering that there might be medical or other reasons for taking those medicines. Both political parties are quick to assume the worst case about the efforts of the other. It is hard to compromise if you see the worst possible motives all the time.

I don't pretend that I am not guilty of this, but I am trying to pause more often and consider other explanations. Can we all not try a little harder to assume positive intent? Get a few more facts before we sit in judgment? Find a little more empathy for others, even if we don't agree with them? It just might make the world a better place.