It’s the comparisons game. At least that’s where it begins. I see differences between myself and you and then assign values to those differences— good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse. Often, these value-weighted differences tip the scale in my favor, putting myself, at least in my own eyes, in a position of moral, intellectual, or spiritual superiority to you. That is judgmentalism.
We do this all the time. It’s our way of making distinctions between ourselves and others in some vain effort to validate ourselves. At the root of all this self-validating judgmentalism is pride, which many of the the ancient spiritual masters say is at the root of every sin. I would carefully dig down a step deeper and say that at the root of pride itself is fear and insecurity. If not that, then why harbor pride at all?
I was thinking about all this again after meeting with a small group of folks who are about to take on the momentous task of working with a person for a whole year, to transition this sister or brother out of homelessness. It’s a coordinated effort with The Lighthouse, a local homelessness prevention charity, and The Open Table. (Take a moment to read how another local church is doing this work. It’s really amazing!)
To prepare themselves for their work, they went through an exercise in which each member was invited to take personal stock of their judgmentalism. How judgmental are they in general? What kinds of “trigger” behaviors in other people set off their judgmental attitudes? It was a fascinating discussion, and I was struck by how gut honest everyone allowed themselves to be with each other. They wrestled with how to walk the line between evaluating someone else’s behavior and being judgmental. How fine is that line? Does that line even exist? I have a feeling they will continue to wrestle through these crucial questions through their year-long journey with a homeless brother or sister.
As they were discussing these things, an oft quoted and badly misunderstood teaching of Jesus came to mind:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”Matthew 7:1-5
“Do not judge!” I could probably write a whole book dissecting this teaching, addressing the various popular conceptions of what it means to judge versus what Jesus meant. (I’d probably drive myself crazy trying to figure it out, too!)
For now, however, what stands out to me is the second part of this passage addressing the speck and the plank. As I read it again, it has occurred to me that Jesus was an absolute genius of human psychology. He’s talking about what Freud would later call “projection.”
According to Wikipedia Almighty— don’t judge me!— psychological projection is:
…a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.[ For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.
Another way of saying it is this: we despise in others what we most despise in ourselves. We see this negative thing acutely in others (the speck in their eye) because we struggle with it so intensely within ourselves (the plank in our own eye). Otherwise, why would we care so much? And, considering the full range of things we could choose to judge within others, why else would we consistently judge certain things within other people?
Ouch. If that steps on your toes as much as it does mine, that’s because it’s meant to. If we want to grow and mature as people, we must stop in our tracks long enough to look within at our shadowy side, the part of us we of desperately try to avoid and deny.
This is why Jesus gives us the admonition to spend all the time necessary— usually the span of our lifetimes— to call out our own shadows, to remove the plank from our own eye. Then we’ll possess the unfiltered clarity see our neighbors more clearly, fairly, and compassionately.
This leads me to my other revelation about judgmentalism. In addition to addressing our own shadows, the best antidote I know of for judgmentalism is compassion, which I understand to be the ability to see myself reflected within another person, both my strengths and my liabilities. Compassion is a mirror. Within my neighbor I see a mirror of my strengths and liabilities, and I can choose to humble myself and offer that same mirror to them. Then we no longer stand apart; we are siblings.
How does this work?
Let me share a rather painful, personal example. I tend to despise arrogance in other people. My gut reaction to it is, “How dare they carry on like that? Who do they think they are?”
Why do I respond that way? It’s simple. We’re competing for space! For all the recognition and attention they soak up, I feel like that’s less for me. I don’t want someone to be overly recognized while I sit in their shadow because then I won’t be as deservedly noticed and appreciated. Shame on them for taking up what is rightfully mine!
Here is the plank in my own eye: it’s my “shadow self’s” need to be appreciated and recognized for the good which I self-perceive I am and do. Through years of painful shadow work, I have learned that this is a fundamental insecurity within me. When I choose to cast a light on this shadow and expose it for what it is, in other words, remove the plank from my eye, I then have the ability to “get over myself.”
It’s also enabled me to empathize with the same kinds of traits in others, the ones I happen to judgmentally label as arrogant show horses. So now when I spot what I sense to be arrogance in someone else and it triggers my judgmentalism, I can choose to turn off the judgment, empathetically gaze at that neighbor, and perhaps see a mirror of myself. And that allows me a degree of compassion. I don’t have to judge them for being right or wrong or good or bad. They just are who they are, as I am who I am.
If I’m feeling especially neighborly, I will seek out this “arrogant” person, and genuinely encourage them for the good I treasure in them. That’s my mirror back to them. Why would I bother?? It’s for one simple reason. It’s the way I like to be treated. (Love your neighbor as you would love yourself.) And if they genuinely share the same shadow I do— the need for appreciation and recognition— I might have met and soothed that same unspoken need within them. I could speak real value and love into their life.
That’s compassion. It’s the polar opposite of judgmentalism.
Now, please, please don’t hear what I’m not saying.
I’m not saying that this is easy. Along with forgiveness, and perhaps this is another form of it, choosing compassion over judgmentalism is one of the hardest things we can ever do. We cannot even begin to do it before calling out our own shadows.
I’m not saying that we throw out any sense of right and wrong. Of course, there is good and evil. There is right and wrong. There is righteousness and there is sin. We all do both good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness. But that’s not the point.
My point is that we must be honest enough with ourselves to ask why it is that certain things within other people stand out to us as more scandalous, evil, sinful and unforgivable than other things. Once we understand that about ourselves, we could approach the offending neighbor in a very different— hopefully much more compassionate!— way. We would be a whole lot more humble and happy, too.
So where would be a good place to start if we want to grow from judgmentalism to compassion? Start with Jesus’ warning that the measure we use towards other people will the same measure used towards us, either by God, by other people, or both.
Generally speaking, what comes around goes round. Genuinely compassionate, gentle people tend to invite that same compassion and gentleness towards them. Not always, of course! But certainly most of the time. What we plant is what we sow.
Sow the seeds of compassion, and more often than not, that’s exactly what you and I will harvest in abundance. If for nothing else, let’s allow this simple seed of truth to sink in, grow roots, and do its necessary work within our hearts, for our wellbeing and for that of our neighbors.