Note to reader: Originally published in the March 2023 issue of

What was the last assumption you made?

Go on, it’s okay. We’ve all made (at least) one in the past day. We’re an assuming breed.

I recently assumed that what appeared to be an able-bodied woman parked in a disabled-accessible spot was abusing the system—I hadn’t yet seen her passenger, who clearly warranted the reserved spot. An acquaintance assumed I was expecting a baby and asked about it—I’m not pregnant. My dad recently approached the parents of another child at my son’s band concert, congratulating them on their daughter’s performance—they kindly replied that “she is a he”. 

All understandable assumptions. But what is the impact of an assumption?

On a small scale, we fall in and out of love over assumptions; we decide to engage or keep quiet over assumptions; we feel self-assured or worthless over assumptions. On a grand scale, assumptions have caused people to get cancelled, devastating hatred, toxic estrangement and violent wars.

But paradoxically, assumptions can also lead to essential inner awakenings that serve to shape us for the better and ultimately elevate humanity.

In the case of my dad’s assumption about the tween’s gender in the band, the child’s long hair, alto voice, and slight frame computed as female. Makes sense. But my dad had also been part of countless conversations on gender—at his own dinner table—and how appearance does not imply gender identity. I had a beloved transgender professor in the late 90s whose memoir moved me to become acutely sensitive to and caring about gender identity. I’ve been an ally and advocate for the issue for over 25 years, and I’d passionately expressed to my dad, on many occasions, the validity of gender identity. He heard me, but hadn’t been convinced that gender was more than two easily distinguishable boxes. 

It wasn’t until he felt an actual emotional connection and plopped himself into an actual conversation with actual people, inside their actual story, and made an inaccurate assumption that they called out, that he took pause and truly reconsidered what he thought was true about gender. His called-out assumption was awkward, uncomfortable and messy, but it became a valuable catalyst for his inner growth and expanded perspective. And the ripple effect that will reverberate from this singular, small occurrence is subtle and profound. That one learned thing elevates humanity.

Look, we know what we know from our own lived experiences—and all of it is true. No judgement. AND. Our perspective on anything is not the whole human story. All those other billions who surround us—in our world, in our nation, in our local community, in our own homes—their experiences are just as true and valuable as ours. We co-exist in a shared human identity. And it’s impossible to really know what it’s like to live inside of anyone else’s experiences, relationships, feelings and body… unless we ask them and open-heartedly listen to their truth.

As human beings, we make assumptions—they help us make sense of and navigate the world. But assumptions become dangerous when they are not called out and explored. Each assumption that we make and overlook, is a micro-decision to turn our backs on connection, to turn our backs on love.

As people, it’s no secret that we’re a fractured body—we’re emotionally disconnected from each other. But spoiler alert: We need each other. Even if we’re tempted to live in silos, we’re inherently and energetically connected. So each one of us is accountable for improving the emotional landscape of our human network.

One action we can all take to build emotional bridges to each other is to handle our assumptions more thoughtfully.

The goal is not to avoid the assumptions and the awkward, social blunders that may ensue. The goal is to allow the uncomfortable awakenings to happen and lovingly move through the assumptions we make—“I made an assumption—I apologize. Your child rocked the stage!”—internalize what was learned and do better next time. 

But here’s what on each of us: because many of our assumptions will never be publicly verbalized to create uncomfortable awakenings, it’s our responsibility to be intentional and privately notice our assumptions, call ourselves out and make uncomfortable awakenings happen from within.

For instance, what do you assume about white teenage boys on a sports field? What about Asian teenage boys enrolled in a top tier college? What about black teenage boys walking on the sidewalk in front of your home?

What do you assume about that friend with tremendous wealth? Or that friend with a deep faith? Or that couple with an ideal marriage? Or that neighbor who doesn’t have to work? Or that friend who is passionate about their work? Or that beautiful person who’s in great health?

What do you assume about that child with sporadic behavior? What do you assume about that child’s parents? What do you assume about the old person driving slowly? Or the driver who’s texting? What about that neighbor who bothers you? The colleague who annoys you? The relative who rubs you the wrong way? The group whose purpose bothers you?

What are your assumptions? Get real. Shake them out. Tell yourself the truth.

Then, take a beat. And breathe.

Remind yourself that you’re a person-in-becoming and always will be. Remind yourself that this is what self-awareness looks like and this process will ultimately enrich your life. Remind yourself that there is something to learn from everyone.

And then ask yourself these questions about each assumption: 

  1. How do I know that? (Spoiler alert: your response will likely be: “I think that because (of a personal experience that informed your assumption).” 
  2. Is my thought elevating or depreciating humanity? (The goal is to elevate; yet we don’t want to blindly elevate, so either way you answer this question, move on to the next question.) 
  3. What other perspective could I seek out to further inform what I’m thinking? (Get curious! Look to balance out your thoughts by finding a news station with a different slant; a person with a different set of life experiences than yours; a leading expert with another approach, etc.) 
  4. What is there for me to learn here? (It’s helpful to pull in a loving friend to this conversation to help you figure out how you’re growing. The answer to this question is the nugget of new knowing that you will take with you forward in your growing life.)

As both the one assuming and as the receiver of assumptions, we’re striving for those uncomfortable awakenings—as awkward and hard as they may be—so that we can sidestep the irreparable damage that unchecked assumptions are capable of creating. Inviting those uncomfortable awakenings is an investment in yourself and a decision to love humanity.

This is how we engage in the work of strengthening our human fabric.

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