Never Attribute to Maliciousness...

As the daughter of a woman who prized her Irish heritage, I grew up believing that most of life’s problems could be solved over a comfortable cup of tea. When a crisis occurred in my family when I was a child, my mother’s first words were not “Call 911,” but rather “Put the kettle on.” It’s no wonder, then, that during those years I read many bits of wisdom from the tabs of Salada tea bags. I remember the ordinary sayings, the “stitch in time” ones, only because my mother often repeated them in a frequently unsuccessful effort to moderate the behavior of four not quite perfect daughters.


A few of the less well-known proverbs have also stayed with me through the years, probably because I seem destined to remain in need of relearning the lessons they impart. Whenever I find myself compulsively obsessing on where a comma belongs in some article I’ve written, whether I’ve sufficiently researched every idea related to a topic I’m speaking about, or if I’ve packed every item I could possibly need for a trip, I am haunted by a tab that warned me long ago: “No amount of creativity can compensate for a preoccupation with details.”

When I begin to worry about the rightness of a decision I have made, however, I’m often calmed by the tea-bag saying reminding me that “we learn to make correct decisions by first making wrong ones.”

The most memorable of all the Salada sayings, the one I’ve struggled with most through the years, came to mind again a few weeks ago, as it has many times in the past. Each time I remember it, I find myself substituting a different word at the end to complete its meaning.

The incident that reminded me of this particular maxim happened as I was checking out purchases at a local supermarket. The young male clerk slid each of the greeting cards I had purchased across the scanner and flipped them and their envelopes into the large plastic bag that was hanging open on the frame by his counter. He then began to drop the other items I was buying into the same bag, with no apparent concern that they could easily crush the cards.

Slightly annoyed, I proceeded to rescue the cards from the large bag, saying firmly that I didn’t want them to get wrinkled. I placed them in one of the smaller plastic bags lying on the counter. The clerk gave me a weak smile, said nothing and continued scanning my purchases. It was not until I paid the bill and the young man gave me the change that I noticed his left arm hung limply at his side and his left hand was severely deformed.

I left the store feeling embarrassed and upset with myself. How could I not have seen sooner that the clerk had a disability? Feeling shallow at my concern about damaged cards when he was dealing with a useless arm and hand, I considered going back to apologize but decided this would probably only increase both his embarrassment and mine.

As I made my way home, the line from the memorable tea bag hit me: “Never attribute to maliciousness that which can adequately be explained by mere stupidity.” Substituting “a disability” for “mere stupidity” provided me with a new variation of the lesson I’ve struggled to learn often during my lifetime. I had so easily assumed that the clerk acted out of a lack of concern, when it was, instead, an inability—with one hand he could not hold a bag and insert something into it at the same time.

Then I thought of the times I have judged someone’s behavior as deliberately mean or blatantly insensitive only to find out later that it was caused by weakness or lack of awareness. It occurred to me that perhaps the lesson from the tea bag is, for me, actually contained in the first part of the sentence: “Never attribute to maliciousness....” Almost any time I’ve judged someone’s behavior as inherently mean, my opinion changed after hearing his or her life story and understanding the resultant fears and weaknesses.

Probably there are people who are malicious by nature, but I don’t want to be the one to decide that. I want, instead, to listen to the voice of Salada reminding me never to attribute to maliciousness that which can adequately be explained by anything else.

In the midst of my reflections on judging others’ motives negatively, I was struck with a realization that seems new each time it surfaces in my consciousness: God never does that. God knows our hearts and never suspects or assumes the worst. It made me feel better to remember that God knew that my response to the supermarket clerk was prompted by my lack of awareness of his condition as well as my fussiness about unwrinkled cards, not by meanness. It was a relief to remember God’s indiscriminate graciousness, especially when I felt I had been particularly ungracious myself.

My hope is that the remembrance of God’s goodness will encourage me to incorporate the insight of the tea bag into my daily life: “Never attribute to maliciousness....”

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

At Rome's Basilica of St. Bartholomew, a shrine to modern martyrs, Pope Francis presided over an evening prayer service April 22, honoring Christians killed under Nazism, communism, dictatorships and terrorism.
The conference brought together six lay people from different countries “to reflect on the post-synod apostolic exhortation that has aroused grave perplexities and widespread unease in numerous components of the Catholic world.”
Gerard O'ConnellApril 22, 2017
These photos, patches of uniforms and drawings create a piecemeal account of life at Dachau during and after the war.
Teresa DonnellanApril 21, 2017
Demonstrators march during a Feb. 25 rally organized by Catholics Against the Death Penalty in Southern California (CNS photo/Andrew Cullen, Reuters).
Christianity is not a relic laid in a museum; it is not a book entombed in an archive. It lives in the living people of God.
John T. Noonan, Jr.April 21, 2017