Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of people about judgement. Some people think spiritual practice is complete absence of judgement. But rather than shun judgement, I’d much rather debate it. What it is. How we judge, when we judge, why we judge. How we relate or fail to relate to others. In a personal context, in a professional context. From a distance.
(Because “judgement” often connotes condemnation, superiority, or insults, I often use “discernment,” though I consider them fairly interchangeable.)
I prefer to debate about judgement/discernment because it’s inevitable. Often it comes from other inevitable things. Conflict, for example—we will never all agree all of the time. So when we disagree, my objective is not necessarily converting the opinions of others. When a concensus is not possible, I am much more concerned with a respectful tolerance of differing opinions.
To be very clear, in light of the sadly frequent instances of domestic terrorism in the US: in this context I mean conflict of ideas, not actions. I think free thought is important, and I place little priority on debating with people who have no interest in other perspectives. So, someone who wants to hate Muslims, gays, etc for whatever reasons is welcome to think whatever he wants. But I do not believe that free thought must allow free action. Meaning that the same person who hates Muslims, gays, etc does not have justification to act upon those thoughts.
A recent example of judgement was a friend telling me that although I pride myself on being open-hearted, I’m actually quite judgemental. I hope that most of the time the former is actually true (as opposed to only my pride about it). This post reflects on perspectives about the latter.
I think judgement, and all the debate that rightfully belongs with it, is a vital part of spiritual practice. Spiritual practice requires, even demands, that we make some judgements. Not because all judgements are welcome, of course. But I do think spiritual practice calls for intentional, careful discernment. How else can we determine, according to our own values, how to live?
Thus I want space for discernment, in all directions. I never want to be so stubborn that I can’t hear criticism. This is an important part of my spiritual practice—that I hear and honor differing opinions, always considering their validity.
And so I have. In the past year, I’ve been called a liar, a gossip, a thief (of ideas), a hypocrite, a fanatic, and a snob. Also selfish, self-centered, arrogant, childish, and unintelligent.
For the record, I don’t think I’m right in every instance of conflict. But even if I do think I’m right, I still want to know the judgements. Simply having another person’s perspective can be sufficient to prove that I have been careless or insensitive.
Even when people confront me rudely and aggressively, I still want to know the judgements. As much as I want people to be respectful, how they approach ultimately doesn’t matter in terms of whether I should listen.
I make a lot of mistakes, so the radical honesty from those who confront me is much appreciated. The inevitable challenges I have in relating to others have always been a rich source of growth. I have learned that sometimes:
~ I am far too direct, and I come across as aggressive
~ I am not direct enough enough, and I seem careless or disrespectful to others
~ I can come across as harsh, in my efforts to be honest
~ I have unreconcilable opinions with another person
~ I can be so caught up in my own life and my ego that I fail to be sensititve to the needs of others
So I start with me. There are positive judgements too, certainly. I’ve been called courageous, inspirational, disciplined, mature, compassionate—among other things. Some of those judgements also came during challenging situations. They are further proof that it’s important for me to discern yet another layer (for myself) in these debates. Because I have also learned that sometimes people can insult out of insecurity or shame or jealousy, so I don’t have to accept all the criticism. Just as sometimes people can attribute too much credit to me and over-compliment, so I don’t have to accept all the affirmation.
I don’t believe that being open-hearted and being able to judge/discern are mutually exclusive. Debating judgement can, of course, be very uncomfortable. But it’s important because both extremes of judgement—complete lack or complete bombardment—are useless.
The belief that being open-minded or open-hearted requires total condonement is just as dangerous as justifying blanket condemnation or prejudice. Just as no one deserves unnecessary prejudice, no one deserves a guarantee of approval. No one should be above criticism. Just because I intend to be a kind, tolerant person doesn’t mean that I actually succeed all the time. I rely on these debates; all the lessons are worth the uncomfortable, difficult moments.
Integrity and authenticity are some of the qualities I value most. In the hopes of maintaining them, I will continue observing, debating, listening, sharing.
SK © 2015