Remember when you were in high school? Once in a great while (at least in my school it was pretty rare) when you did poorly on a test, after much angst and anxiety, you returned to class to learn that nearly everyone had done as poorly as you had and the teacher decided to grade it on a curve. Whew!
It’s one of those times when misery truly does love company. Instead of getting the grade you actually earned with your answers, the teacher adds a number of points for everyone to bring up the average. I was never sure if it was an act of charity and magnanimity on the teacher’s part or an attempt to cover their own derriere. After all, if no one could pass, perhaps there was something lacking in the teaching. But whatever it was, we were grateful and asked no questions. Just take the points and shut up, if you’re smart.
This idea of grading on a curve comes to my mind quite frequently these days. As a therapist I’m usually more keenly aware of the struggles many people have. Expecting best behavior from everyone all the time is simply unrealistic and a recipe for disappointment, at best, and lots of fights, at worst. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is carrying some kind of burden or hiding some kind of wound. It’s the human condition, plain and simple.
With family and with close friends, we’re more likely to be aware of some of the pain they carry. And yet they seem to be the ones from whom we expect the best behavior, and certainly, the most understanding for ourselves and the unique burdens we may be shouldering. I think the secret to having better relationships and easing stress is to consciously grade others on a curve. The snarky single mom you work with may be struggling more than she lets on. Give her a few free points. Your critical mother-in-law may feel useless and frustrated with her growing physical limitations. Have some extra patience. Young people today coming from broken homes or non-traditional families that don’t even know their fathers may feel worthless. Grade them on a curve.
It seems paradoxical. We should certainly expect the best of others, especially our children, and call them to a higher standard. Most often that kind of confidence inspires them to be worthy of the respect you give them. When you show that you truly believe in them they generally don’t want to disappoint you. And yet at the very same time we need to be ready to cut them some slack. How do we balance it?
Well, just like in school, if the teacher graded all tests on a curve that would indicate that something was wrong either with her teaching, the material, or the students. It wouldn’t take long before students realized they didn’t need to study or try very hard at all. Standards would fall and the kids would wind up demoralized. It would actually hurt them in the long run.
Grading on the curve is reserved for those times when there are extenuating circumstances – unfamiliar and extra tough material or times when other class stressors may have gotten in the way. When relating to friends, family, or others with whom we must deal, we need to treat them with the respect they deserve and expect their respect back in return. But when they don’t meet the standard, we need to be ready to understand what, if any, extenuating circumstances may be in play. For some, family problems growing up may have left them handicapped in certain aspects of relationships. Alcoholism, divorce, the loss of a parent, or financial stress affects people more than most want to admit. Remember George Bailey’s behavior in It’s a Wonderful Life when the $8,000 was lost? That scene was not typical of his behavior but a snapshot of him in crisis. Grading on a curve in such a situation would be the only just thing to do. Too often our encounters with people are similar snapshots. We need to reserve judgment and grade them on a curve. I remember years ago when a friend accidentally blocked my neighbor’s driveway. He went ballistic. I was horrified as this guy was the sweetest man. I mean we’re talking just like Santa Claus. He later apologized, very embarrassed for his behavior. He’d had a really bad morning and that was his last straw. Frankly, I could relate. I’ve had days like that myself. We all have.
For those who come from difficult backgrounds, it’s not hard to play a role in a romantic relationship and imitate what seems normal to them. But as intimacy builds, keeping up the act may be harder than anticipated and the chinks in the armor start to show. Try to understand and grade them on a curve. They are often doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. And even without understanding the reasons behind their behavior, accepting their imperfections and limitations will enable you to reduce irritation and frustration. It simply is what it is. Not your fault and perhaps, as unbelievable as it may appear, it may not be their fault either.
Remember, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”(1 Cor. 13:7) And when we learn to grade on a curve in those difficult moments, we will find truly that “love never fails.”(1 Cor. 13:8)
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