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It’s been an interesting first month at the school. I’m always amazed by how much I learn from the kids. About life, about myself. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about justifiable vs understandable bad behavior. Sometimes a kid comes in, and you can tell that they’re having a bad day from the very start. They’re exhausted, they’re sick, there is clearly something that went wrong between home and the classroom. And then they start to make bad choices. Which have to be addressed, because if one kid starts ignoring classroom rules, they all do. And that, in turn, can cause a melt-down, which is frustrating for student and teacher.
But making bad choices, and pushing ourselves too far, isn’t something that stops when we’re all grown up. We just get better at rationalizing and justifying. If we act badly, but we think we’re in the right, or we don’t know any better, we excuse it by saying “It was justified.”
Thinking on it now, I don’t think bad behavior, by which I mean actions or choices that are counter to what we would consider a personal principal, are ever justified. They are, however, understandable.
If a kid is exhausted and as a result distracted and prone to outbursts, it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t learn better coping strategies, or that they shouldn’t be held accountable. On the other hand, it is understandable that they’d behave that way. That doesn’t make it right, but it does mean that allowances can be made, and mistakes forgiven. It isn’t an excuse, or a free pass. There’s still expectations, and there’s still consequences. But it is a more compassionate acceptance of a condition that exists, in the here and now, with the opportunity to do better next time.
And I think that I could stand to view myself that way more too. I hate making mistakes, and I’ll hold grudges against myself for years over the slightest thing. (I still remember mistakes made in junior high, and beat up on myself for saying or doing something stupid…as if I was the only 13 year old that ever did something dumb.) And if I ever behave badly, no matter the circumstance, I treat it as unforgivable. As evidence that I am a Huge Disappointment To Everyone. And I justify that by telling myself, “If I don’t dwell in these mistakes, I’ll never learn.”
But now I’m thinking that, while it’s important to acknowledge and examine deeds done wrong, it’s also just as important to accept that sometimes bad behavior happens for understandable reasons. As much as I might wish it, I’m not perfect. Sometimes I get worn out, stressed out, exhausted, ill, hungry (especially hungry) and I do or say things I wish I could take back. And if I can accept that it was understandable, but not justified, then I can still learn from the mistake without drowning in guilt or self-recrimination. I can give myself the opportunity to do better next time.
Even now I’m fighting with this idea. Part of me wants to say “You can’t go easy on mistakes like that! It will just encourage you to slack off, and then where will you be? An even worse person, that’s where!” It occurs to me that this is why I struggle with the concept of forgiveness. I view it as though it is a free pass to behave badly, but maybe instead it’s actually letting go of hurting one’s self over the past.
What do you think about the difference between something justified and something understandable?