As with most writers, I hold a day job that pays the bills. I’m a teacher at an inclusive early childcare education center. I’ve been at this position for 14 ½ years, and I’ve been working as a teacher for thirty years now. This past week, all the teachers on staff got to attend the national NAEYC conference held here in Nashville. There were over 9,000 people in attendance and something like 500 sessions offered over the four-day event. I think there was a planned ‘theme’ for the event, but the unintended theme that I go out of it was about perception.
Nearly every lecture I attended had something to do with how people perceive the actions or words of other people. Generally, our instincts are to judge harshly, to assume less of a person. “That co-worker didn’t help me because they’re lazy or doesn’t like me.” “That parent brought their sick kid to school because they love their job more than their kid.” “That student is acting up because they just want attention.” “That person thinks what I do for a living is beneath them.” It goes on and on until we have strong feelings that build a wall of frustration and anger.
What we need to do instead is assume ‘positive intent’. Everyone has a story that they are going through, right? In nearly every case, I could argue that people aren’t intentionally being mean. When people are angry or hurtful, they are usually struggling with something themselves. Someone has to rise above. Someone needs to see the bigger picture. Take a breath. Calm the urge to fight or flee. Then see if you can figure out how to address and hopefully solve the problem.
What surprised me was the intense focus on this concept throughout this massive conference. Clearly, how to choose how to fully comprehend a behavior before reacting to it is something people are hungry to understand.
This information isn’t new to me. I’ve been trying hard to live by this method of thinking for the past few years. Sometimes I don’t succeed and my patience is challenged. It’s easy to fall into the habits of complaining about or judging others. I do feel, however, that my life has improved since I started working consciously on seeing the better side of difficult interactions. I’ve also made an effort to embed the concept in my books.
It’s particularly evident in my children’s novel No One Needed to Know. That book is centered around bullying and helping kids understand empathy toward students with autism and special needs. Heidi, the main character, realizes that the reason the kids in her class are being so mean is because they don’t understand what it means to be a person with special needs. They have fear of what is “weird” or “strange” to them, so they are cruel instead of kind. She works on finding a way to help them learn and change their way of thinking.
In my novel Lost on the Water – a Ghost Story, there are many secrets that get revealed. One of them is about Dannie’s grandmother. She lives on a lake but seems to be deathly afraid of the water. She won’t let Dannie play near the lake and acts strange whenever it is mentioned. We later learn about the tragedy she went through that created her fear, and through Dannie’s eyes see that her Grandmother has a very valid reason for being so strict and overly worried.
In All the Love You Write, there’s a scene where Bethany’s mother insists that they spend Valentine’s Day night with each other instead of letting her go out on a date with her boyfriend. Bethany is devastated by this, and the whole evening is ruined with her tears. Once they get home, Bethany learns why her mother was insistent on spending that time together. She’s not just being difficult, like Bethany thought. Her mom has some complicated feelings of her own left over from her divorce. When Bethany learns this, it changes her heart toward her mother.
Another example is from my novel Whisper of the Woods. Juniper’s uncle comes across as the villain for wanting to chop down the 1,000-year-old Red Cedar tree, but we learn that he has genuine fear of the tree based on a tragedy that happened there when he was young.
If we think of our favorite novels and movies, if they are well-written at all, there is always a backstory for every main character. Villains are often victims of trauma. Heroes have risen above adversity. Parents have baggage. Writers do this so that we can have empathy for the characters and care about what happens to them. (My step-daughter has a real affinity for a tragic backstory of a handsome villain.) It also helps us forgive a character (like a wayward parent) when they come around and prove themselves at the end of the story. I’m a sucker for these storylines.
Yes, I spent four days at a conference about the care and welfare of small children, and I walked away with ways to apply what I learned not only to my day job, but to my writing and personal life. Some messages are like that – universal. I challenge you now to think about how you can apply the concept of ‘positive intent’ or ‘benefit of the doubt’ to your life. Think of how it can change the nature of your relationships with your family, friends, co-workers, etc. If you’re a writer, think how it can enhance your stories.
This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for learning new things and to all of you who come to visit my blog. I’d love to hear an example of how ‘positive intent’ has worked for you in your experience. Please leave a comment if you like, and have a great holiday season. And hey! If you're looking for some great reads for your long weekend, click here and take a look at some of mine.
D. G. Driver
Award-winning author of books for teen and tween readers. Learn more about her and her writing at www.dgdriver.com
Author D. G. Driver's
Write and Rewrite Blog
“There are no bad stories, just ones that haven’t found their right words yet.”
A blog mostly about the process of revision with occasional guest posts, book reviews, and posts related to my books.