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What is Judgment?


On Saturday, Tamara and I pretty much spent the day together as most of our kids were away doing other things in other cities. Prior to that, I'd been working a great deal (sometimes as much as 14 hours a day), and with the travel over the holidays, while we'd spent time together, it wasn't really "alone" time. So yesterday was kind of a PJ day for just us. Tamara went out and got a bunch of movies and we curled up on our new big comfy couch.

Among five movies, she picked Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and its sequel. In the sequel, one of the girls had held a grudge against her dad since the day her mother had died. The mom committed suicide. Some events that led up to her mother's death helped the girl conclude that dad was guilty in part by either contributing to the reasons that led to the suicide or by neglecting his wife's needs.

Later, after obtaining more context by visiting her grandmother, the girl realizes that her dad was not only doing everything he could to help his wife, but he was also hurting, and that her treatment of him was just one big long fester on top of his personal pain from losing the wife he loved.

Judgment... if I could create my own definition of it, it would be that we critically weigh the choices of others to determine first if we agree with those choices and second whether malice played a role in the decision for action.

That said, I wonder how often we assign "intent to hurt" to the choices and actions of someone else when that wasn't the case at all.

I've heard the phrase before "Walk a mile in my shoes and then judge me..." The girl in the movie realized that some of her dad's choices were made with the best of intentions. She also realized that she hadn't given her dad the benefit of the doubt.

As Tamara and I discussed this later in the evening, she mentioned that very thing: the benefit of the doubt. When we don't understand the choices made by someone, our natural instinct is to fill in the blanks as best we can. Depending on our own internal wiring and experience, that can be negative, positive, or wait-and-see. Are we cynical? Or do we lend the benefit of the doubt?

How do we judge the choices of others?

It seems to me that the harshness of our judgment scales like this:

At the low end of judgment, there's forgiveness built right in: He couldn't help it. Either he didn't know enough or he operated on instinct or training, but it's that "He had no choice." We don't judge animals for painfully ripping other animals into bite-sized morsels. They can't help it. But some people harshly judge humans for that same action of hunting and killing animals. Why? They perceive that people have a choice.

Then there is the selfless act. Nobody judges that poorly, but because it is a conscious decision (not instinctual) it lends to bolster your street cred with humans. The more sacrificial it is, the greater the perception of goodness. (I'm not talking about when someone is generous with others' money or time - that's not selfless. Quite the opposite...)

Finally, there is the selfish act. Choosing what's in your own best interest seems to cause some folks a great deal of heartache and renders a lot of judgment. Here, I think some political leanings are drawn. I think business too, because it is by definition profit-oriented, is self-centered and therefore judged harshly.

Now along these axes of instinct and choice, and selfless and self-centered, we can factor in things that color judgment:

Intent to hurt

Tamara and I also watched This Christmas. In it, one person viciously beats the crap out of another person with a belt. In fact, they poured baby oil on the tile floor to prevent the other near-naked person from defending themselves while getting whipped with the belt.

Sounds bad, I know. How does it flavor your perception of it though when you learn that Regina King's character was doing this to her husband because she knew that he was cheating on her and she finally unloaded her anger about it? Her self-centered choice becomes justifiable to us. And even funny in the movie. You go girl! Beat that two-timing jerk!

There are two parts to judgment: the interpretation and the response. It seems to me that personal interpretation needs to be softer and more patient. Our system of justice is patterned after this. It seeks a full disclosure from all sides so that as full an understanding as possible is gained before the response is given. But in the busy moments of our day, it's tough to give time to that. As a parent, there've been times that I've judged one of my kids too quickly and later learned more of the facts I should have taken the time to acquire and I came to see that my response was completely wrong.


by Brett Rogers, 1/4/2009 12:00:29 PM


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