I participated in a small 24-hour clergy spiritual retreat over the last day (through zoom). The woman leading the retreat was talking this morning about judgment. Her point was that judgment is easy, but that it is not where we will find God. She began by asking us to look at her as she described herself as a cis-woman, white, heterosexual, upper middle-class, never divorced, never poor, never dealt with law enforcement in a negative way, never been in trouble legally, a dog-owner, mother, pastor of the same church for 18 years … you get the idea. She was telling us that because of her location and situation, there were many things that she could never claim to truly understand, but that she has a call, as we all do, to be open and compassionate towards ourselves and especially towards others who have different life experiences.
What was interesting for me is that I was having a hard time not judging her. I felt that she was bragging about the facts, for example, that she had never been poor, never had a negative encounter with the law, and never been divorced. And I kept thinking of a line from the movie Leap of Faith in which the main character said, “Would you want a virgin priest telling you how to fix your marriage? No! Would you want some teetotaler who had never had a problem with the bottle telling you how to give up your addictions? NO!” And I kept thinking, how could I ever trust a person who had never struggled and who assumed they had their blessings because they’d earned them to be able to support me when I had struggled through hard and difficult times. And then I felt angry. There is such a strong inclination in all of us to assume that we have the good things that we have because we have earned them, because we have done something to obtain those blessings. From that place of assuming our good things are because we deserve them, it is not a big leap to assuming that others are lacking those same good things because they don’t deserve them. We forget all the help, all the things we’ve been given since birth (since before birth, actually) that put us where we are and strongly affect where we can go with our lives, what paths our lives follow and what resources we have at any one time. We forget this and it becomes very, very easy to judge others’ situations. And so I found myself really put off by this woman doing what I felt was boasting in order to teach we-who-have-suffered how to not judge others, and how to re-center and re-claim our lives in a healthier way.
But I quickly realized that, as she was talking about not judging, that I was judging her, this woman I really didn’t know. I realized that I had just assumed a whole host of feelings and emotions (hearing “bragging” behind her words, which may or may not have actually been there), as well as a whole life situation (that she had never really suffered, for example). And I remembered, as I prayed and meditated, listening for God’s words for me this morning, that our call whenever we are judging is to look deeper into ourselves. So I dove into my own feelings to look at why I was making these assumptions about her. And I realized that these thoughts and feelings I was assigning to this woman were feelings that I had, at one time, held myself. I admit, with great shame, that there was a point in time when I, too, judged people who had been divorced, feeling that somehow I “did relationships” better. There was a time, too, when I had assumed that people who struggled financially probably just weren’t as intelligent and didn’t have as much common sense and that this was at least a part of their poverty. There was a time in my own life when I judged people who bought fast food for their children as unintelligent, uncaring, or even lazy parents. I prided myself on my UC Berkeley education, on my doctorate, on my ability to save money, not go into debt, and own a house without depending on others for help. I prided myself on buying only organic foods for my children, leaving the television off in favor of playing with the kids outside and reading books. I felt good about my choices to work hard to take care of the environment, not using resources that I knew were damaging to the larger world, even if that meant buying more expensive items, bringing my own bags everywhere, not using “one-use” items, while still being generous to my community and to others. I thought people who didn’t make these choices were lacking in genuine compassion for the world, for others. They were cold hearted and greedy, in my opinion, and their vision was very short-sighted.
And then my own world had fallen apart. I had to deal with abusive law officers, and a business-legal system that is mercenary and is not really about justice. I became a divorced, solo parent, with sole custody of my three young children, working two jobs in order to support my kids, running through the McDonald’s drive through at times because there just wasn’t time to make dinner, there wasn’t energy to get to the organic store; buying the cheapest foods, not the healthiest foods, because I had to stretch my lone salary to feed my family, sometimes using the “electronic babysitter” television for the kids when I just needed a nap and had been worn to the limit by my responsibilities, my jobs, and the deep grief of loss; and I even had to rely on financial help from extended family to be able to relocate and start again back home in the ultra-expensive Bay Area. All of this forced me to reevaluate so many of my judgments, so many of my assumptions, so much of my mistaken “pride”. I got it now that sometimes divorce is the necessary choice for so many reasons. Sometimes it’s the brave choice, sometimes it’s the most loving choice for our children. This doesn’t mean we chose badly in the first place and it doesn’t mean we aren’t committed when we get married. Things change, situations change and sometimes our choices and decisions must change accordingly. I got it now that sometimes people just do what they have to do to survive and that this doesn’t always include and ability to buy more expensive but healthier foods, or consistent home-prepared meals. I understood now that the pressures of one’s life sometimes mean that we make less than ideal choices for our kids, including things like screen time instead of reading and playing with them outside all the time. I got it that life happens to people. And the best we can do may not look the same as it does for people with more or different resources, but it is still the best we can do and we should celebrate and honor that rather than judging it.
I have often said that one of the challenges, but also one of the very deepest gifts of my life is that whatever I judge, I later am called on to face in my own life. And that time of terrible hardship taught me so much, not only about myself, but also about other people who have not had easy lives.
I thought about all of this as I sat there in judgment of this person I did not know. And I realized, once again, that if I chose to pay attention, to be “curious” about my own judgments (rather than heaping more judgment into the situation by judging myself for my own judgments) that those feelings and assumptions had much to teach me, once again. They called me to remember, to look deeper, and to let go. They called me once again to release any shame I felt both for the judgments I had previously made, but also for the choices I later had to make to survive, to help my kids, and to walk through each day of that nightmare time.
I am grateful for all the challenges I have dealt with in my life because I do think each one of those hardships has given me more compassion, understanding and grace towards others who are struggling. But I can also strive for compassion towards those who have not had these same experiences. Until they have walked in the shoes of deep struggle, they may not see in the same way. That is not their fault, that is simply the reality of the deep gifts of struggle.
It is so easy to judge. But those judgments are voices calling us to look deeper at our own lives, to have compassion for ourselves as well as others, and to choose grace instead. Be curious. Look deep. Let go of judgment. Choose compassion instead.