Said The Buddha: Don't Judge Others, Because You Are Not Perfect
As did Bob Marley. And my mother.
And me. And also, duh…
Among my faults (and there are many) is not lack of judgment. Wait. Let me rephrase. What I am NOT is judgmental. Whether I lack judgment generally is open for debate, I suppose. And, I’ll admit, I may possess over the allotted amount of chutzpah — I did, after all, follow a quote of the Buddha with a big side of sass. But being judgmental? No. Not one of my weakness. I have my mother to thank for that one.
Every single one of us is born without a judgmental bone in our bodies. Ever seen a 2-year old refuse to play with another 2-year old because of that child’s skin color? Nope. You haven’t. Ever seen a 3-year old girl get disgusted by a 3-year old boy playing with a Barbie doll? Nope. Ever seen 4-year old refuse to share a toy with another because he deems it a socialist grab? Nope. Children aren’t inherently judgmental. Yet we teach them to judge — intentionally or not.
It happens to each of us. We all develop judgment, bias and even prejudice over the course of our lives — especially during our formative years. We are taught to love, like, accept, embrace, scorn, dislike or even hate by our parents, teachers, coaches and religious instructors. We hear things at home, at school, on the playground, in church, at work and on the television. And we internalize them. We read books, magazines, newspapers and, gulp, all the crap on the internet. And we are guided by them. We have bad experiences — maybe a broken heart, a friendship betrayed, a job promotion lost to another or an abusive relationship. We have good experiences — maybe falling in love, being part of a winning team, getting that a hard earned “A”, coming from a loving family or having an exceptionally exceptional sister (humble brag). And we are shaped by them — the bad and the good. All of these things go into the making up of who and what we are and how we approach the world and the people in it.
Even the baby Buddha became entangled by the human condition in his youth and on into adulthood. Then he began his extraordinary journey and became enlightened. I won’t go anywhere near that far — my audaciousness does have its boundaries. But I’ll share my less transcendental path to “enlightenment.” In this particular area at least.
When I was a young and stupid (stupider), I was certainly not lacking in judgmental tendencies. I can’t imagine how many times I came home from school whining about some “idiot teacher” who graded my essay harshly. Or from the mall railing against “that bitch” who had lodged one perceived slight or another in my direction. Or from anywhere Teen-ville USA calling someone a “liar” when the story winding its way through the gossip chain didn’t exactly match up with my own.
Were it not for doggedly patient interjections of alternative thoughts by my mother, Merry, I can only imagine how deeply rooted such tendencies might have become. And once rooted, they can be very hard to dig out. I’d like to think that I would have been able to do so during a teensy little midlife crisis-induced emotional archeological dig I embarked on not so long ago, but luckily I didn’t have to find out the answer to that question.
I suppose when I was little my mother simply admonished me not to judge or name-call. But as I get older, I see in retrospect what was a very deliberate and skilled redirection of my developing information, thought and emotional processing skills.
Here’s an example: I grew up a military brat (“brat” being the operative word). After moving around from place to place during my early childhood, we settled in a military town around the start of junior high school. Kids were always coming and going. A few years later, a new girl started at school, and she was less than outgoing. What she was, however, was extremely smart and quite beautiful. That got her a lot of attention. Because she was also quiet, and kept to herself, she was quickly labeled as a “stuck-up snob.” Did I repeat that hurtful trope? I’m sure I did. Was I jealous? Was I threatened? Probably. I don’t know what my motivations were, but frankly, they don’t matter. I certainly had no information from which to determine whether she was a snotty bitch or not.
Here’s what my mother likely said: “Is she a stuck-up snob? Perhaps. Or maybe she’s painfully shy. Maybe she’s deeply insecure. Maybe she’s feeling very “fish-out-of-water” at this new school and just needs a friend. You’re a military kid — you remember what that feels like, don’t you? Who knows what it is she’s feeling inside or experiencing in her life that makes her act the way that she does? Certainly not me.”
Try convincing a teenage girl that the stunning and smart newcomer who has all the boys’ tongues wagging is just insecure or shy. “Falling on deaf ears” is an understatement. But in these types of (unfortunately) recurring instances, my mother didn’t debate me when I drilled down, or say “just don’t name call” or “don’t be judgmental”, or just throw up her hands in surrender. She would have been well within her rights to ask “who died and made YOU perfect?” But she didn’t. She left it unsaid because she was gifted in the art of subtly and implication. Instead, at each opportunity, she gently offered me a variety of other different perspectives to consider.
I dunno when, but somewhere, somehow it stuck. Eventually, I began to stop and to think and to refrain from passing judgment. This is one of the many Merry teachings about which I have immense gratitude. Because when I did that deep-dive introspective analysis, it sure was nice to see this little nugget buried in there with some of the not-so-pretty junk I unearthed.
When my older son was very little, he had the most gifted swim teacher, whom I will call Abby. A person who truly was meeting her calling in life, and one of those people with a bright inner light so strong that it cannot help but emanate outward. These people are rare gems in the world. But they exist. And you know them when you feel them. Geminators, I call them (kinda like a radiator or generator, but the light, heat and love they exude is rare and precious). My husband and I became friends with Abby, and she started spending time with us and our son outside the pool. Around the same time, she was coming out. One day, she told us nervously that she had begun dating a woman. And then she asked us if we were okay with her continuing to be around our son. It. Broke. My. Heart. One of our closest friends was a gay man, and we’d introduced her to him. It hurt my heart for her that still she feared judgment from us. So we told her, “Of course we’re okay with that! We’ll tell you what we are not okay with — that one nanny that let him chew on chicken bones. That shit was scary. But being gay? Not relevant to the safety and well-being of our child. The soft, but oh-so-strong, light carried around inside you? Totally relevant.”
Fast forward 13 years later, and I had a very similar experience. I have a doctor who is a Geminator. She is similarly possessed of that intangible warmth that just draws you in and makes you want to embrace her — desperate to find a way to “feel” it and soak it in. I’ve been going to Dr. G for many years, including that little crisis period, and she knows pretty much everything about me — the good, the bad, the ugly — and the really super, duper ugly. Never once have I felt an ounce of judgment from her. Not even a scintilla. Just care, concern, comfort, and love. Not too long ago I went for a check-up. She was positively glowing — which she always does — but it was different this time. It felt like love, and it was. She was dating a new person. A woman. And she was happy. She asked me with a bit of trepidation in her voice, “Are you mad at me?” Heart-broken. Again. That this woman, remarkably gifted on so many levels, would ever have to be concerned about judgment based on who it is she loves. The only thing that would make me mad, I told her, is that if she doesn’t treat you as the stellar human being that you are. But it seems she does. And so I am not mad. I am thrilled.
Somewhere in between — I had a different experience with a friend who had a secret. Not one that had anything to do with how God made her, but about a choice she had made. She is a smart, beautiful, strong and a deeply thoughtful woman. Come to think of it — another Geminator (side note to self: count blessings as to how many Geminators I have loved or been loved by as it is dawning on me as I write this). We had a very open and honest friendship, and I like to think she knew me pretty well. Several years after relocating to a new city, I went to visit her, along with my son, and she was nervous to share her secret with me. Her secret that, although married to the same man she had been since the beginning of our friendship, she had met someone new. For some reason she feared that the person she knew as a devil-may-care, swingin’ single who was now married-with-children may have changed and developed some new biases. That really stung. Not that she was having an affair. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not an Ashley Madison advocate or anything — but I’m not going to pretend to know what is or isn’t going on in your marriage, your heart or your partner’s heart. And I’m not going to judge you for it. Your choices are your own, and I don’t get any say in that that you don’t give me. No, it stung because if there is anything I want people to know about me, especially a friend or loved one, it is this: I don’t pretend to know what it’s like walk in your shoes any more than I expect you to know what it is like to walk in mine. I’m not any more or less perfect than you are. I do not judge you. I just love you.
Judgment is a hard thing to unlearn. It took a lot of my mother’s patience, time and wisdom with me. I’m lucky she got to me early in life (and I don't profess to be perfect at it, but it's not one of my bigger shortcomings). Over time, biases and judgment can become deeply entrenched and very hard to let go of. But here may be a good place to start in these times if you’re someone who struggles with it. That person at the hardware store with a plant nursery shopping for potting soil and plants? Are they being irresponsible and browsing for non-essentials? Maybe. Or maybe they struggle with mental illness and getting their hands in the dirt gives them some relief from the demons with which they wrangle. You. Don’t. Know. That person in front of you at the grocery store with a full cart? Are they hoarding? Maybe. Or maybe they are picking up groceries for a vulnerable neighbor or family member who is stuck inside, unable to get groceries for themselves. Maybe they’re taking goods to a food bank or a homeless shelter. You. Don’t. Know. That friend or acquaintance that texts or calls just a little too often? Are they pushy, needy or disrespectful of your time? Maybe. Or maybe they are incredibly lonely and just need a little bit of human contact. You. Don’t. Know.
I read something recently circulating around the internet about how we are all caught in the same storm during this time. But that we are not all in the same boats. This is a life truism — Covid crisis or not. Some have a raft, some have a dingy, some have sail boat, some have a 10-seat jet boat and a select few have a Steven Spielberg style yacht. But always try to remember that some don’t even a floating device, much less a boat. You just don’t know.
A short while ago, I wrote a piece about being on the perfectly imperfect journey where I shared some things I’ve learned about me that aren’t so great. Things I haven’t been so good at. Things Merry probably taught me to be better at but that took more time to stick (or still haven’t). I haven’t seen or spoken to Abby in years — but she reached out to me after reading the piece and said this: “Know that I always felt perfectly imperfect in your company.” That made my heart sing so loudly. So very loudly. To know that in a time where this Geminator feared judgment, she received none. Just acceptance. And love. And I’m guessing that Merry’s heart, who is an angel now, hummed along as well.
“Judge not, before you judge yourself. Judge not, if you’re not ready for judgment.”