Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life

Judge Not Please

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I really think that I could be a less judgmental person if I avoided public places.  But no.  Museums, the zoo, playgrounds, the grocery store… my current season of life is lived among concentrations of strangers, and especially among kids and their caregivers.

Just the other day, I was pushing my girls on the swings of a foreign playground (i.e. a playground in one of those other neighborhoods), and an enthusiastic dad next to us was using his toddler’s swing experience as an educational platform.  He explained potential and kinetic energy in a high and bouncy voice.   He introduced ‘his little rocket ship’ to various nebula and used the word catawampus at least fifty times as he incessantly chatted throughout the known universe.

Even describing him makes my blood pressure rise a little.

I wasn’t trying to be judgmental, but really, he was egging me on.  After about five minutes of this, my thoughts turned ugly. “Yeah, I bet he’s so enthusiastic because he only sees his daughter for about five hours a week.  He is probably one of those work-a-holics in the Carnegie Mellon robot labs or maybe Google or something like that, and now he’s got an hour with his little rocket scientist and he just needs to introduce her to advanced vocabulary so that she can grow up to be a brainiac like he is.  Poor kid.  Imagine what he’ll be like when she’s a bit older.”

Ugh.  Sorry everyone.  I am not proud of myself.  He is probably just a really smart guy who likes to spend time with his daughter.

But do you see how easy it is to go there?

****

I’m being painfully honest here because I don’t think that I’m the only one who does this.  The world of people, particularly the world of strangers, is ripe for judgment.  For example:

Have you ever noticed how mean people can be to one another on the internet?

My favorite story related to this involves one of my favorite authors, Ann Voskamp.  A couple of years ago her book, A Thousand Gifts, was published.  One of its most negative reviews came from Tim Challies, a blogger/book reviewer.  I’m not going to go into great specifics here; but he criticizes her style, picks apart her theology, and doesn’t recommend the book to his readers.

Okay.  So.  What’s the big deal?  After all, the man is a book reviewer.  And aren’t we all entitled to our opinions?

What is fascinating here is Ann’s response.  The day after the review came out, she sent Tim Challies an e-mail, inviting him and his family over for dinner (they are both from Ontario).  This was not a public invitation, and we wouldn’t even know that it had been given if Tim Challies hadn’t done something fascinating in return.  Even before they set up dinner, he posted a public apology.

In it, he doesn’t back down from his criticisms of the book.  He explains, “It bears saying as well that I feel no moral quandary about reviewing her book or any other and even warning of potential weaknesses. Any author who releases a book acknowledges that it is entering into the public sphere and may receive both praise and criticism. This is an inevitable component of making writing available to the public and it is one that authors welcome; it is an honor that other people consider your ideas worth discussing.”

He goes on.

“Having said all of that, something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox, and that’s what has compelled me to write this little article. Seeing her name brought a sudden and surprising realization and with it a twinge of guilt and remorse. It has happened to me before, this strange feeling that comes when I suddenly realize that the name on the front of the book–“Ann Voskamp” in this case–is not some cleverly programmed, unfeeling robot that spits out blog posts and magazine articles and books, but a person. A real person.”

Later he asks himself if his review would have been different–at least in tone–if he had known that they would soon be having dinner together.

This is a great question.

****

There is a saying-“familiarity breeds contempt”- and it is certainly true.  I am sometimes stunned by my ability to be really nasty to those who are closest to me (with specific apologies to my husband, my parents and my brothers).  However, I would like to propose that the reverse is also true, that unfamiliarity can also breed contempt.

As a city-dweller and a semi-frequent internet user, I interact with an overwhelming number of strangers each day.  And when we are confronted with an overwhelming amount of information, what do we do?  We sort.  We label.  We put things into categories.  Granola mom.  Welfare mom.  Delinquent teenager.  Spoiled brat.  Workaholic.  High-maintenance.  Hard-working.  Obsessed with technology.  Hopelessly outdated.

On and on and on.

With each label comes our own personal script, which can be positive or negative.  For example, a few years ago I realized that I was stereotyping the elderly black men of my community as automatically trustworthy.  My unconscious reasoning was that they were pillars of the community because they had survived (thus rising above) the often volatile circumstances of growing up male and black in the city.  One day a good friend (who was young, male, black and extremely gracious) set me straight.  “Not necessarily Jen” he said, “some were just tough and lucky.  You should hear the things that some of your ‘pillars of the community’ brag about.”

Look at that–elderly black men are individuals.  Imagine.

But while I’m on a roll here, let me make one more sweeping generalization, and I’ll stick by this one:

People are always, always, always complicated.  All of them.  All the time.  From our closest friends to absolute strangers–complicated.    Full of motives and stories and contradictions.  Complicated beyond our understanding, even beyond our imagining.

Complicated.  And this is the reason why we should be careful to judge.  Unfamiliarity can only breed contempt if we fail to remember this:  the enthusiastic ‘rocket scientist dad’ is just as much of a real, complicated person as this long-winded ‘blogging mom.’  As real and complicated as, well, you.

It makes me wonder what could have happened if I had looked his way and said, “What does catawampus mean, anyway?”

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6 thoughts on “Judge Not Please

  1. I don’t believe it’s as easy as “Don’t Judge”, but more of “Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. I think the part of us that jumps to conclusions is related to what allows us to also empathize with someone else. Using your example above, it would be like “if I were addicted to my job and trying to overcompensate in my hour, that’s how I’d be behaving”. The need to connect with everyone we come into conact with, on some level, is what leads us to these conclusions. If the actions are not the way we do things, or how we’d behave, we start to try to figure out why, which can lead to the easiest explanation, which is sometimes the most horrible, or the opposite, way too generous.

    When you step back, you can then see other possibilities – the idiot who took two parking spaces may be rushing in to the store to get medicine for a sick child after a particularly late night – that type of thing. I *TRY* to look at all aspects when I feel like I’m getting upset at the fictional story I’ve created for someone – the easy story of “(S)he’s an idiot”. Other avenues / reasons that would be acceptable to me which then allows me to re-label (to use your term). This helps tto also reduce the stress related to the situation. +

    These conclusions are trained over our lives by every interaction we’ve ever had. Every TV show, every book, even the interactions themselves, and the judgements we dish out can snowball to affect future judgements. Changing todays judgement helps then to change future judgements. In the cases where you never see the driver who took both spots, all you can do is think of the other possibilites, but someone at the playground, go say hi. 🙂

    • Sometimes when someone cuts me off in traffic I think “oh, I bet his grandma is in the hospital.” It’s unlikely, but heck, what’s the point of me stewing in my car? And I like what you said in your last paragraph… the exposure and choices that we make do condition future reactions. I’m trying to ask people better questions so that I can hear more stories. I am often surprised by what I hear, and this trains me to at least suspend judgment. Thanks for your words Joe.

  2. Interesting food for thought here. My natural tendency is to hold off on negatively judging people until I know more. But it’s still amazing how quickly we do jump to conclusions based on our own biases. Thank you for bringing this to our awareness. We need to pray about it and ask Jesus to show us how to love rather than judge.

  3. Good blog post, as usual. =) It’s so easy for me to judge–I know it’s unloving and must be based on completely faulty reasoning and assumptions. But it seems that no matter how much I cognitively recognize my judiciousness, I fall right back into it. I’ve been led lately to practice loving and accepting myself–and the more I try to fight with myself, the more I seem to jump to judging others quickly and harshly. It’s the cliche of displacement, perhaps–hating myself and putting it on others. So when I genuinely love and accept myself as Christ does. will I continue to jump to judgement? I don’t know. I hope not . Seems like a good goal though…

    • It’s funny… it is such a cliche, “You can’t accept others until you accept yourself”, but it is really true. Like with that dad at the playground. Later I thought about how I can be that annoying ‘teachable moment’ parent (it’s in my camp counselor DNA!) and also how I struggle with not having a job outside of raising my kids. Looks like my judgment of him has a lot to do with my own stuff…

      • I just got to read this… Great thoughtful post Jen! I’ve often thought of Jesus’ command to “do unto others as yourself” and wondered if that might be a misnomer. Is Jesus assuming we already love ourselves? Or maybe in one statement, He was including grace for ourselves as well as others?

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