The problem of judgment

Many religious traditions warn against judging or comparing one’s self to another person, either positively or negatively.  The reasons for this proscription are fairly obvious:  comparison is really never apples-to-apples, and it almost never leads to positive feelings or outcomes.  People are unique, and their experiences are such that you can never really compare one person to another when it comes to spiritual things.  Even the homeless guy on the street – are you much better than he is?  How can you be so sure, not knowing the experiences that he has had or his upbringing or the choices he has made?  I think one can have compassion for him, but to condemn him would be wrong.

I have yet to judge somebody and find that the experience has been helpful.  Putting down people who I actually in some way revere is really just highlighting my own faults or dissatisfaction.  For example, a family member is fashionable, charismatic and has a nice looking high consumption lifestyle, and in my head I look down on her because of it.  I tell myself that she is silly and shallow, and I regard her as such because I am so deep and wise.  There is an illusory bump of self esteem by putting another person down, but all it does is tell me in what way I feel insecure. This family member, for instance.  It tells me that I wish I had more money to spend freely; that I looked better and interacted with people more skillfully.  Despite my self-image of someone who knows better than to care about such trivialities, I see that in reality there is still a deep seated kernel of basic bitch who is keeping score.  The small hit of esteem, by way of self-indulgence, inevitably gives way to the truth and exposes pettiness.  Paradoxically, the activity that is supposed to elevate really denigrates.

Epictetus, among many others, advocates for being concerned with only the things over which you have control, that you should make a distinction between what is and is not your business, and ignore that which is not your business.  In many cases, especially in mundane interpersonal situations, I can see how this is very clear and easy to apply.  But I think of things like politics or larger goings-on in the world, and find it more difficult to know what is and is not my concern.  Take Donald Trump and his policies, for instance.  As a citizen of the United States, I suppose it is within my purview to let my congressmen know what I think.  It is not for me to hurl insults at Trump as a person.  I should not judge him; it is not my business to say whether or not he is a good or bad guy.  How can I know the truth of his situation as a human being?  He may be one person for the cameras and as a businessman, but someone else entirely as a neighbor or father.  Who knows?  But let’s take Brexit as another example of a political event.  I am not a citizen of the UK, so should not really get emotionally involved in what happens there.  It may be worth paying attention to as a piece of information on what is going on in the world, but other than that it shouldn’t be a big deal to me.

This last point is a little hard for me to swallow.  I have a belief that educated people should be aware of world events and should have an opinion of the goodness or badness of said events.  This is a culturally ingrained dogma.  Other than contextualizing the unfortunate zeitgeist of nationalism and xenophobia that the press says characterizes the world today, Brexit really has no effect on me or to the people around me.  Am I better off knowing about Brexit and spending time being educated on it?  I can’t say yes, other than it gives me a small ego satisfaction to be mildly up on current events.  Which is to say, I know something about world gossip.  This doesn’t help me be a better parent, doctor, neighbor, or human being.  Night shows spin these political narratives into very easy and amusing jokes, and it is mildly fun to indulge in being the part of an informed tribe of people who have similar political leanings.  It is kind of an inside joke to be a part of, but honestly not much more.   And so these judgments about things that don’t concern me fall into the category of little everyday indulgences that I have learned to regard as virtues.

What would extreme non-judgment look and feel like?  Maybe peace of mind and greater productivity.  I am giving it a try.



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