Q: “What happens when you assume?”
A: “You make an ass out of u and me.”
Ok, yes, I know, this is an ancient joke, growing mold and pink slimy tentacles, but there is a point. Yesterday afternoon, I gelded a donkey. Now, anyone who has spent any time around the ass end of an ass knows that assumption is literally dangerous. Taking a donkey for granted is a sure way to get one’s brains liberated from one’s skull. However, even the most prudent of us often forget to extend the same courtesy and caution toward our fellow humans.
Recently, an essay I wrote on the closure of our large animal practice was published on Salon.com. Now, here’s the thing with me and pieces I publish on-line, particularly essays. I don’t read comments. (By the way, that is not true of comments posted on this blog or at my website – those I read.) I don’t read comments because, to me, essay writing is deeply personal, and while I may be able to make myself walk outside naked (it’s a metaphor, people!), I am not willing to stick around and listen to analysis of my cellulite. However, by accident, I happened to glance at one of the comments on this essay, and while it was fairly obvious that the commenter is one of those mean-spirited people who crop up on the web, determined to make themselves feel better by haranguing others, something he said stuck with me.
This commenter began by stating that he found it “interesting” that nowhere in my essay nor on my blog did I write anything about my love of animals. The conclusion that was apparently reached was that I must not care about animals and thus went into veterinary medicine for all of the wrong reasons and “good riddance” to me. My first reaction was that this line of reasoning was so preposterous as to be laughable. After all, this person knows nothing about me, or the path of my life. But then, I started to ponder the net of assumptions that led to this comment.
He wasn’t wrong. I haven’t done a careful search of my archives, but it is quite possible that I have never written that I love animals. For that matter, I’m not sure that I’ve ever explicitly written that I love my husband or my children. This is assumption number one: I have assumed that these are conditions that are self evident. It no more would have occurred to me to write any of these statements than it would have to type the phrase “I breathe.” I assumed that anyone should understand that no sane person would endure the amount of education required to become a veterinarian, or the physical labor, long hours, and punishing weather inherent to large animal medicine without a love of animals. This is neither glamorous nor particularly lucrative work, and I assumed that everyone knew that.
My assumptions were in their own way just as callous and self-centered as those of the commenter. Why should anyone know what I feel or what my motives are if I don’t express them? It is my right to keep those thoughts to myself, but if I choose that route, I don’t have the right to be outraged when someone misunderstands me. It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, this logic extends to more than passing internet remarks. How often do we get offended with others for misjudging or misunderstanding us, or for failing to meet our needs when we have not let those people into our minds, when we have never expressed our needs or feelings?
Conversely, how often are we guilty of the same “piece of the elephant” logic as my commenter, assuming that we understand the entire picture from a fragmentary snapshot? The most obvious contributor to this error in judgment is our abundance of social media. With Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates, blogs, and texts, it is easy to make the error of assuming that we know the whole story, that we understand everyone from our dearest friends to complete strangers. How often do we pass judgment based on what we assume that we know? Even in person, how often do we assume that we understand the motivation for someone else’s comments or actions? Do we bother to ask that person’s intent? Do we bother to find out what else is happening in that person’s life, if they are hurt, frightened or stressed?
Assumption is easy. It allows us to feel knowledgeable without ever having to venture beyond the walls of our own anxieties and concerns. Reaching past that bubble is terrifying. We might learn that we aren’t as smart as we think we are. We might learn secrets about ourselves, or we might discover the humanity of others. Dropping assumption means that we have to accept the black hole of uncertainty and ignorance. We might find that the elephant is neither snake, nor fan, nor blade, but a giant and dangerous animal.
I don’t write about some of the things most basic to my life because like breathing, they are complex, deep, and essential to my existence. And like with breathing, if I analyze them too closely, I might forget how they work. However, and it does not go without saying, I love the animals that have been my livelihood for over a decade, I love my husband, I love my children, I love my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law, the few dear friends I have let past my barriers…Ok, you get the point.