I was talking to someone on the phone a few weeks ago, and something in our conversation prompted her to say, “I notice that you tend not to judge people. But it’s okay to judge. In fact, it’s necessary.” I’m pleased that I come across as nonjudgmental. But this impression is not exactly accurate. I judge. Then I try to catch myself, and stop. This takes conscious, daily (hourly, momentary) effort.
Judging others seems intrinsic to human nature. Why do we do it? Here are some ideas:
- Judging others lets us know where we stand. It helps us establish our position in the world, as better than some but not as good as others: “I am better than a murderer, but not as good as a humanitarian.” “I am better than an embezzler, but not as good as a spiritual master.” “I am better than someone who defaces public property, but not as good as someone who volunteers for disaster relief.”
- Judging others confirms that we are good. Thinking “that person is bad” implies that we are good, because we are able to recognize the evil in another.
- Judging others makes us feel stronger and safer. Judgment is attack, as evidenced in the hostile and aggressive way we condemn others for what we view as their trespasses. We attack because we are afraid, and the goal of attack is to hurt or destroy. Therefore, to judge is to attack what frightens us, with the intent to hurt or destroy it. Striking a blow, through judgment, protects us from a perceived threat.
- Judging others is a personal right. It is our prerogative, which we exercise to the extent that we individually feel entitled: “I have the right to judge people for their religious beliefs but not their political views.” “I have the right to judge people for their sexual orientation but not their physical appearance.” “I have the right to judge people for committing violent crimes but not for failing to pay their taxes.” I think we all claim the right to judge others who hurt us or who hurt our loved ones.
- Judging others is a personal responsibility. We need to let others know, if only with our thoughts, that they have crossed a line with their words or actions. We are enforcing a moral code.
On the surface, these reasons for judging others may seem befitting for existence on this planet. But I think they raise some questions:
- Are there really levels of human beings? Is one person more (or less) valuable than another?
- Are we truly sinless, while others are sinful?
- Does judging actually make us stronger and safer? Or does it teach us we are weak and vulnerable, because we feel the need to defend ourselves?
- Would we be willing to give up the right to judge, if it meant freedom from being judged ourselves?
- Is it really our job to point out where others do not conform to our standards or to the standards of society?
We judge others automatically, with no exceptions: the terrorist on the morning news, the slow person in front of us at the coffee shop, the colleague who throws us under the bus, our spouse for loading the dishwasher differently than we would. In my own experience, judging others provides an immediate, self-righteous high—which sours quickly. Once I sense the oppressiveness of my moralistic intolerance, I let go of the judgment—and feel instant relief. Many times a day, I come to the realization that judging others does not make me feel better about myself or my life.
Nonjudgmental people may be perceived as naïve or wishy-washy. But being nonjudgmental actually comes from a place of knowing and certainty about who and what we are:
- We are one. The metaphysically minded might say that we are one in spirit. At least most would agree, I think, that we are one in purpose—as cohabitants of the earth, striving for contentedness. Many would also probably subscribe to a unifying idea like the brotherhood of man. So, when we judge, when we single out a brother to accuse him of an offense, we are attacking the whole—including ourselves. That’s why judging others feels as toxic as being judged—we are pointing in a mirror. But by withholding judgment, we are saying, “I would not accuse myself of this.”
- We are innocent. Numerous thought systems and spiritual teachers instruct that our true nature is divine—that, in reality, we are perfect, whole, and innocent. This idea can be difficult to accept, in light of the sinful things we seem to do—of which we are guilty in the framework of the world. But if we go beyond the physical, to our essence, we are all sinless. In this condition, where sin does not exist, judgment has no function.
A popular caution against judging others is, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I hope that we can also say, “Let’s drop our stones, because we are equally innocent.”
I love this post, Karen.
I wish we lived nearer to each other and could walk our dogs together and talk.
You are wise and kind.
Thank you, Julie! That is so kind. The funny thing is that I don’t really talk about these kinds of ideas! Maybe if I did, I wouldn’t feel the need to write about them. xoxo
Thanks, Karen. Nice analysis. A thoughtful delving into an important topic. I liked the line, “I come to the realization that judging others does not make me feel better about myself or my life.” Maybe judging is a compulsion, like eating too many potato chips or M&Ms – we know they ‘don’t make us feel better’ – but we can’t stop in spite of that.
Hi, Joe! Thank you so much for reading and for your feedback. Your illustration using M&Ms is apt, as I am particularly fond of them! I have to measure out a reasonable serving; it would be dangerous to sit down next to an open bag.
One other thought about judging. I have often wished, when discussing judging, we all would use other words like ‘condemning’ or ‘dismissing’ or ‘dissing’ or ‘estranging’ instead of ‘judging.’ I think it is very unfortunate that we use the very same word when we talking about the intellectual discernment, which to me is a good thing. I want to be able to look through murk and confusion and prejudice in myself to discern the truth. And ‘forgiveness’, as you have described it, is a kind of ‘clear-seeing’, releasing grievances based upon error, because error does not matter in relation to Essence, anymore than raindrops harm an umbrella. So, you see the problem for me? True forgiveness is released through the exercise of a true rather than a false judgment. We rightly call false judgment ‘pre-jud-ice’, which etymologically suggests making up your mind in advance, shallowly; holding fast to a premature conclusion. And we almost always mean, specifically, the negative judgments that underwrite punitive and estranging behavior. When Christ (allegedly) said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” it is this that he meant.
I have been amazed, sometimes, about confusion on this point. I have heard well-meaning individuals, who resonate with the dictum, ‘judge not’, take the most extreme position, and claim that any intellectual distinctions at all must be given up, if you are to renounce judgment. This is akin to advocating a sort of catatonic state, it seems to me.
Of course, there are meditative exercises where one reduces or completely suspends discursive activity for a temporary period. But then you exit the state and enter the world where distinctions are necessary (and hopefully your meditation has renewed your ability to make them skillfully). Bottom line: the problem for me is, that the practical relevance of surrendering condemnation, mischaracterization and the will-to-punish gets diverted by this linguistic problem. People come to believe ‘the ego is in control’ when they are making the most ordinary decisions and evaluations of daily life. This strikes me as a sad state of second-guessing. And who knows?–to the degree that it diverts attention from the real issue, it may well be (ironically) an unconscious ego ploy.
Hi, Joe! Thank you so much for your additional thoughts. I appreciate your making this point. In my post, I was very tempted to go into the distinction between judgment and discernment, but I felt it would be opening a can of worms, I wasn’t sure I could effectively draw the line between them, and I wanted to keep the presentation simple. Yes, it seems that an argument against giving up judgment (in the condemnation sense) is that one also has to give up discernment. Those who don’t want to give up condemning others (which is totally fine, no judgment here!) might use the multiple meanings of “judgment” to discredit the idea, because it would seem foolish to hold a belief like, “It doesn’t matter if I cross a busy street against a red light” (as an example of a lack of discernment). Having insight into what’s going on around us is necessary for navigating the world while we’re in it. On the other hand, I suppose that when we make something the object of our careful thought, whether we are assessing it as good or bad or just trying to understand it, we are making it separate from us—which is an attack. Still, going back to the first hand, as long as we continue to need our bodies as learning and communication devices, it behooves us to exercise discernment in keeping them around.
There is a passage in WB 136 that bears some kinship to your use of the word ‘attack’ above. “When parts are wrested from the whole and seen as separate and wholes within themselves, they become symbols standing for attack upon the whole.” But I have to say, I don’t see this as a function of merely focusing on or identifying the ‘part’. Remember how frequently the lessons have us practice with great specificity, often on individual objects? “Wresting” is a stronger term to me, and suggests a judgment: putting the part before the whole. This reminds me of the Course’s use of the word ‘exist’. The word “ex-ist” comes from the Latin ex-istere, and literally means “to stand out.” This etymology has rich significance. To say that something exists is to say more than merely that it has reality. It is to suggest that it seems to “stand independently,” it “stands out” as apart from the whole. It seems to have self-sufficiency. Its being apart appears to be somehow primary; whereas it’s inclusion in a larger whole seems somehow secondary. In Tibetan Buddhism this is known as the error of imputing “inherent existence”. It is the projection of a mental judgment upon appearances in the world. In the Course this is richly described in WB 184. For me, that’s where the ‘attack’ occurs. We are attacking our own perception of wholeness. However, remember (WB 28) the ‘table’ example. “In using the table as a subject for applying the idea for today, you are therefore really asking to see the purpose of the universe.” It seems to me if we see ‘parts’ as aspects of features of the Whole or the One, as with the table, then we are moving in the healing direction by using specifics.
Hi, Joe. Thanks so much for your thoughts. I find these points very challenging to interpret and articulate! The following passage from Chapter 6, Section II, of the text ties together judgment, separation, and attack in an interesting way: “What you project you disown, and therefore do not believe is yours. You are excluding yourself by the very judgment that you are different from the one on whom you project. Since you have also judged against what you project, you continue to attack it because you continue to keep it separated.” So, judgment makes separation, and separation perpetuates attack.
The table is an example of projection. We see it as separate from us and from other things. So, yes, we need to make a specific application of forgiveness to the table, and to other objects and people in our experience. The goal regarding the table is to see “the purpose it shares with all the universe” (as a vehicle for healing the mind), rather than to make its separateness and individuality real.