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.”