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Sunday, July 13, 2014
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Published: Friday, 5/7/2004

Never underestimate what life throws you

REMIND me not to underestimate anyone. Expecting the unexpected should come naturally to humans who have lived long enough to pile up plenty of false assumptions. But it doesn't. We assume people will act a certain way and we still underestimate their potential based on narrow frames of reference. I do it with my kids all the time.

You'd think I'd learn by now. Even very young children can be surprisingly deep on occasion. Yet I'm floored when mine make an especially pointed observation or ask a question that I just assumed was way beyond preschool thinking. Same goes for the other spectrum of life. Seems I keep running into septuagenarians and octogenarians who work and party more than folks half their ages.

They thoroughly enjoy defying convention and take special delight in standing stereotypes on their ear. They almost have a tickled expression on their faces when they know they've confounded expectations. It's as if they're intuitively aware that they've jolted those who would prejudge them or put them in an age-appropriate, one-size-fits-all box.

We who are guilty-as-charged should know better, but it's easier and less threatening to sum up an individual within limited categories. Big mistake.

If I've learned anything from my elders and the very young, it's the danger of sizing up people, from the President to the plumber, based mainly on presumptions. Yet most of us do it with politicians all the time. We wrongly assume they are incapable of great deeds, but we also naively underestimate their propensity for foolishness.

Armed with a little knowledge, a little personal history, a little personal observation, we assume much about our leaders that is wrong. We assume strengths and underestimate weaknesses.

Sometimes, if we're honest, we decide someone is aloof, congenial, smart, stupid, warm, cold, wishy-washy, steady, scripted, sincere, visionary, vapid, or some combination, on nothing more than a hunch. In the telegenic age we see handsome and friendly and assume popular and interested.

We continually underestimate the drive of those who never wanted for anything. Yet some are willing to take risks when none is necessary and are determined to fulfill a destiny of their own making. We assume revolutions to be movements worth noting but consistently underestimate the extraordinary episodes building up to grand scale change.

We assume some presidential campaigns will be more contentious than others but underestimate the reactions of candidates cornered.

We underestimate the propensity of politicians to lie and assume they have the public interest at heart. When one actually displays a dedication to duty and follows through on promises made - like Marcy Kaptur did with the World War II Memorial - it confounds the critics' assumptions that nobody can be that committed.

On the other hand, those who underestimated the extent to which the 43rd president could be led by unfinished crusades were in for a rude awakening.

Underestimating the capacity of a foreign culture to embrace the ways and means of an occupying force has led to an intractable nightmare for American soldiers and citizens.

Yet even assuming that those in trusted positions of power and influence will eventually abuse their rank in no way lessens the dismay when the expected occurs. The cancer ravaging the Catholic Church about scandalous cleric misbehavior was whispered about for decades but was still stunning when confirmed out loud. Church leaders in steep denial assumed the crisis would dissipate with a group hug.

But they have lived long enough to know better. Never underestimate the anger of betrayed congregants or deceived voters or the fury of a woman scorned - just had to add that one.



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