When We Judge
Casting judgement is a reflex, a weapon that each of us wields and uses without realizing our guilt or that it cuts both ways.
Acknowledging and managing this truth requires curiosity, compassion, and intention and the willingness to look honestly at our lives and how we show up in the moments. I no longer judge myself for judging. The mind has a mind of its own. I find that when judgement emerges, I pause, ask why, and give attention to what I am feeling physically and emotionally, and then I make room for compassion for myself and whoever I have judged.
I’m doing the work of looking; this is how I have learned how easily judgement is practiced and how easily it can poison, too. The longer I live, the more I appreciate what each phase of life brings and has brought, including the time and desire to look back and, hopefully, forward, too. Reflecting on the all-out trust and innocence of the first years of life, I can see now how they gradually gave way to a tendency toward suspicion, judgement, and other defenses.
It has taken me years of learning and unlearning to find a harmonious balance between the constant ebb and flow of information, life experiences, and knowledge that determines how and what I see.
Even as I reflect now from a hopefully wiser vantage point, I am still very much a work in progress.
Part of my work is looking at the life I’ve lived and sharing the lessons I’ve learned and am working to unlearn, especially easy judgement. I think of Mom’s early safety warnings about strangers. It was the first way I began to judge and feel comfortable and justified in my suspicion of others. Learning and unlearning how to judge myself and others only deepened in my late teens, through the church and my own adult experiences with our criminal justice system.
It is because men set up arbitrary standards of right and wrong, and are anxious that all should conform to their particular standard, that they see evil in each other. - James Allen
I had been voting for over 15 years when I was selected for jury duty for the first time. I had been contacted a few times before, but it seemed a waste of time. I would show up, be disqualified, and be sent home.
When I was finally selected, it was for a highly publicized murder case. The gist of the case: A public servant on morning duty, just as many of us were heading to work, happened upon the two men who later would be accused of murdering him. This was before all the crime shows that have desensitized us to hearing and “seeing” the details of someone having their life taken. The judge instructed us about why we were there, the importance of using the evidence to determine the verdict, and reasonable doubt.
I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong in a group that was going to decide guilt or innocence. The sense of responsibility and pressure to get this right was magnified during the trial as I watched the families of the victim and the accused, clearly suppressing emotions so that they could remain in the courtroom. The trial went on for days with testimonies and exhibits. I gave it my total focus and attention. I think the whole jury did. When it was time to deliberate, it was unanimous.
The accused was guilty. I came away from the experience realizing the importance of being a credible witness and the need for certainty when someone's freedom is at stake.
Some years later I would be the victim of a crime.
I needed a few snacks for the children's lunch, so I hopped in the car and headed to the store two blocks down on the corner. I parked a couple of feet from the door and got out of the car. I glanced to my right and two men were casually walking up the block about 20 feet away. I didn’t think anything of them. By the time I closed my car door and looked up, they were beside me with a gun pointed at me, demanding my car keys.
I glanced into the face of the one holding the gun, but my eyes were focused on the barrel that he was pointing at my stomach. I wondered if he would pull the trigger. Would I hear the sound before I felt the bullet, or would I feel it at all? I handed him the keys with one hand, mindful that I was still holding my wallet in the other. They didn’t ask for it, so I didn’t offer.
I didn’t utter a word during the entire ordeal. They pointed the gun again and told me to lay on the ground and to get under the car parked behind me. From under the car, I watched their feet. They got in MY CAR and pulled off onto Seven Mile Road. I crawled from under the car as fast as I could before the owner could come out and start it with me still under it. I ran into the store and told the man behind the counter what happened. He called the police.
The police arrived quickly, gathered the information they needed, and told me they would contact me when the car was found. It took only two days before they contacted me. They had found the car and the drivers had been arrested. They wanted me to come in and identify them in a lineup.
I don’t recall how many men were in the lineup. But a couple of them did look familiar. The detective had instructed me to look through the one-way mirror for as long as I needed to be certain that I identified the gunman if he was among them. I stared at the front and profile of each one. One of them stood out. But I couldn’t be certain that it was him.
I thought back to what I learned in the murder trial and what my uncertainty could cost someone. As bad as I wanted the guilty person to be found, I couldn’t risk accusing the wrong person. I told the detective, and he thanked me for coming in. On the way out, he told me that the man caught driving my car was in the lineup. I felt regret that I hadn't been able to identify him.
I wanted him to experience some kind of punishment for his crime. But the chance of judging wrongfully was too much of a weight for me, even as someone who’d learned early in life to justify judgement.
A man begins to understand what “seeing no evil” is when, putting away all personal desires in his judgments of others, he considers them from their own standpoint, and judges their actions not from his own standard but from theirs. - James Allen
From my mid-teens through my thirties, I attended a church where it took far less to send a person to Hell for all eternity than it took to send them to jail. There was a disharmonious interplay between love and legalism that fomented judgementalism. Members caught in specific sins were required to stand before the congregation and offer an apology as a part of their repentance. Looking back now, it’s clear to me that we were another kind of jury who could have all lined up to take our turn at the mic. Certain articles of clothing and accessories were forbidden and considered an indicator of one’s spirituality, encouraging conformity. God’s love, grace, and a caring community were intermingled.
This legalism was among the beliefs and practices that obscured a broader reality of who God is and who I am. Even as I write, I still wouldn't trade my twenty-plus years at that church for anything. God was there with us. It was there that my inner healing and a transformative life shift began. It prepared me for what was next. As the Dalai Lama and others are credited with saying, “one must learn the rules of life before one can know how to properly break or apply them.” I was able to learn and un-learn, and to work through cycles of order, disorder, and reorder (which Franciscan priest Richard Rohr teaches is the pattern for all human growth) by staying put.
But eventually I would have to leave to fully practice what I had begun to learn. I was at my next church for almost 20 years, and my learning increased exponentially. It shaped who I am today. When our pastor retired and moved to Florida, I left. I stayed in touch with her and continued to learn from her until her death.
I still see her in my dreams, exemplifying love, grace, and a constant reminder that judgement is a choice and we determine how freely we live by how we choose.