Are People Doing the Best They Can?

This book is changing my life. I’ve read other books by Brené Brown (also incredibly life-changing), but when my friend recently gave me this one, it struck my soul’s chord with a resonance that’s been loudly ringing at a whole new level.

One story in particular struck this chord. Brené talks about being asked to speak at a conference pro bono. She really doesn’t want to speak at it, but is guilted into it. The conference conveners say, “don’t forget the people who supported you before you were famous.” They then share that *all* the speakers share rooms, insinuating that Brené must think she’s better than anyone else if she wanted her own room (she later has some awesome things to say about boundaries, compassion, and asking for what you need).

What ends up happening is that Brené says yes out of guilt to both the conference and roommate. When she gets to her hotel room, her roommate is wearing muddy boots on the couch and eating a sticky cinnamon roll. After finishing her roll, she proceeds to smear her icing-covered hands all over the couch, then  goes out on their patio and lights a cigarette. When Brené tells her it’s a no-smoking room, the roommate says the rule doesn’t extend to the patio, and continues to smoke (which is hard, because Brené  is an ex-smoker).

Brené is absolutely furious. She leaves for the airport immediately after  walking off-stage from speaking, and she finds herself irritated by everyone – the man smacking his gum behind her in line, the parents who aren’t watching their kids closely enough, etc. Everything puts her on edge.

When she gets home, she tells Steve (her husband) that she wants to go out for chicken fried steak, then shop for a new sweater. He encourages her to eat a salad and go for a walk. She ends up making an appointment with her counselor, Diana, rolling some deli meat around a cheesestick for dinner,  then goes to bed.

At her appointment with Diana, Brené lays it all out there. She’s still enraged. Diana’s response, after hearing Brené hash everything out is-

“Brené, do you think people are doing the best they can?”

Brené is incredulous, and becomes even more angry. This question, however, leads her to ask everyone around her the same thing, and eventually do a formal social work research study using this question (you’ve GOT to read this book).

After her counseling appointment, Brené goes to the bank. Still stewing about this question while waiting in line, she comes to in hearing  a woman in front of her yelling at the bank teller. The woman is elderly and white, the teller is young and black. The woman says she wants to speak to a supervisor because she wasn’t making the withdrawals the account showed. When the teller points to the supervisor, also African American, the woman says she wants a different supervisor.

When Brené gets to the front of the line, the teller asks, “Can I help you?” Before saying anything else, Brené asks, “do you think people are doing the best they can?”

She ends up learning that this young man served with the military overseas, and during his duty, his wife cheated on him with a friend. After all he’d endured, he still replied that he thinks people are doing the best they can. “You never know about people,” he said. “That woman could have a son with a drug addiction problem who’s taking money out of her account without knowing it. Or maybe she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and she doesn’t remember withdrawing the money.”

When Brené asks Steve, he doesn’t say anything for ten minutes, and just looks out the window. Eventually, he says, “I don’t know. But I know my life is better if I live as though people are.”
What do you think? Are people doing the best they can? How does this impact your life? Your faith? The way you see God, the world, and yourself?


  1. Really good food for thought Arianne. . . it’s a simple paradigm shift that can really change the way you perceive the people around you. I will remember that one!

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