Judge not…?

Yesterday I wrote an essay on Schadenfreude that was occasioned by the front page of a grocery line newspaper trumpeting the difficulties in the marriage of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin.  I was shocked by what I judged as a cynical intrusion into the pain of other human beings, and I excoriated the paper and those who fed on its patent sensationalism. I went so far as to condemn the paper for exploiting “pain to titillate ungenerous hearts” and that this seemed “unkind to the point of viciousness.”  After unloading my own pain at what I had judged as the uncaring and selfish behavior of other people, I did my best to turn toward compassion, quoting a wonderful talk given by George Saunders in a graduation talk at Syracuse University. His theme was kindness, and the fact that the beauty in every heart can become covered over by self-centeredness and a lack of empathy.

My post prompted this caring and insightful comment by Michael who writes a lovely blog called Embracing Forever.   Michael managed to dolly back to a point of broad perspective that tempered my negativity far more effectively than I had.  Here are his words:

“Great post, John. Reading this, I realize I need to watch Saunders’ speech all over again…! In reflecting on this concept of schadenfreude, and your thoughts on reading the tabloids in the supermarket aisle, it struck me that perhaps not everyone who buys that magazine is doing so out of schadenfreude. Perhaps there are others whose “life dial” is turned down to pretty low volume, and that through reading about and vicariously connecting with these “larger than life” idols and pop stars, they experience or touch something that may be felt to be missing in their own lives.

There may, for instance, be a whole segment of the market who purchases those tabloids who are crying with George and Amal, who are not happy at all, but feel as though they, too, have lost something. The fairy tale has ended. It’s just a bit of a projection on my part– a leap. But it does come back also to what you describe, nonetheless, to pain that we feel. To some fear or sense of inadequacy that suggests others are in better position to live and express the meaning of life than we are, others who have more to offer, more gifts or talents, more potency of what matters. And what could be farther from the truth?

It is sad, as you wrote: “The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being.” It is sad that so many, whether in schadenfreude or lack of esteem or self-worth– for whatever reason– have come to rely on vicarious projection as the generator of life experience, as the generator of emotional fodder.

There is so much within that is missed in these projections, but also… perhaps it is merely kept safe until we are ready to truly go there…”

I find Michael’s words beautifully wise and kind, and although I am sure he did not intend this result, his thoughts encouraged me to reflect upon my own (hopefully brief) foray into the land of negative judgments.  I would like to share three ideas:

1.  There is a thin line between “judgment” and “discernment.”   Surely the world is not ideal.  Michael and I meet in the sadness we feel at the pain in the hearts of so many people that sometimes leads to unconscious and unkind words and deeds.  But it is not only wiser, but more effective, to greet the less-than-ideal with understanding and compassion.  Harsh negative judgments only drive the unconsciousness more deeply into the psyche.  “Only love turns away anger” says the Buddha, and the same is true of all pain, including that expressed as schadenfreude.

2.  I have always found St. Paul’s words in Romans 2:1  both enlightening and a shade poignant:  “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”  This is more than the beam of wood in your own eye while judging the mote of dust in another’s.  For I not only occasionally do the things that I judge, but it seems to me that in the very act of judging, I am doing what I condemn.  While I am railing at another’s unkindness, I am being unkind.  When I condemn another for lacking compassion, my words lack compassion.  And when I judge other people for seeming to enjoy the pain of another, I am finding relief in my own supposed “superiority.”   I am afraid St. Paul has a point: in judging others, I judge myself.  In fact, what do I really know about another person?  Whatever i say about another says far more about me: my degree of wisdom and compassion, my array of values.

3.  Finally, i want to remember to view my own negativity with compassion.  That tabloid cover really jolted me, and I felt great empathy for Mr. Clooney and Ms. Alamuddin.  Having gone through some of that pain myself, I felt a great investment in treating their travails with kindness and respect.  As I noted in another post, even Jesus had his moments of impatience and harsh  judgments.  I think we can use those moments when we miss the mark to increase our understanding and our self-knowledge.     As Rumi teaches, every movement of our minds and hearts–whether saintly or selfish– is a gift:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


6 thoughts on “Judge not…?

  1. Hariod Brawn

    What now, are we to make of Karl Popper’s words?

    “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

    I for one, have no easy answers, for there is the ideal, and there is the warp and weft of living in the world as it is. As you say John “There is a thin line between ‘judgment’ and ‘discernment’. Surely the world is not ideal.”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. juliemontinieri

    Judgment/discernment — it’s just the toughest damn thing and we all do it despite knowing better and Michael’s beautiful words. I appreciate your further reflection upon it; it’s instructive as usual. Love you despite the judgment!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michael

    Hi John,

    As sometimes happens to a person who tends to be self-aware and self-reflective, you know far better than your readers, perhaps, how you felt when writing yesterday’s piece. I did not perceive you as judgmental at all, and felt you were simply expressing your feelings. My intent was only to share what came to me as an alternate view of the same situation. But I can relate to your response today because sometimes when I “lose it” inside, I know it, and I know the pained aftertaste. I need to apologize to the person or the moment where I lost the way, and sometimes when I do, they look at me as if they had no idea anything had even happened… But we know inside, what happened, and we sense that what happens inside is what matters. Is all that matters. Because once we go beyond appearances, that is all we have… our authentic experience of who we are.

    And sometimes we lose it. And it’s okay!

    I think judgment has its roots in separation, in the projection of a distance between here and there. Judging puts the problem in someone else’s court. They do not understand, or are ignorant, or are uncouth or uncultured or lacking in what is required in some way, and things would be okay if they weren’t so deficient… In its extreme, which the mind is very good at seeking out, justified by the rules of logic, judgment suggests that if they weren’t here, then we could get things straightened out a bit. We can become angry, because the connotation is that they stand in the way of our experiencing the world in its ideal form. So long as they are here, the world is not ideal…

    Popper’s quotation from Hariod makes an interesting point– that tolerance would lead to its own demise by being wholly vulnerable. And yet, it strikes me a quality often revered in “masters” of all traditions is their defenselessness, their lack of need to defend. Popper moves to the extreme in his test of the viability of tolerance: to violence. The intolerant will commit acts of violence against the tolerant, and tolerance will be lost as the tolerant are destroyed. Who can argue with that?

    My own feeling is that tolerance in the face of violence is a personal choice. There is no right answer. But the tolerant will not be destroyed. They will simply be subsumed by the greater whole, which is perfectly tolerant of all that arises… There may be beings willing to demonstrate that the threat of violence is meaningless, by tolerating it. I think, though, we should protect all beings who do not make such a choice of their own free will. We should protect them from violence perpetrated by the intolerant, and so tend to agree with Popper’s conclusion as a temporary necessity. For it may be that those who do tolerate violence and use it as an opportunity to look hatred in the eye and offer only love in return make a difference. It may be that we need to move away from thinking that there is some universal “right”, and that if it’s “right” to be ultimately tolerant, we all “should” be. I think it depends on where we are at, what we desire to experience, and what we desire to communicate.

    But being non-judgmental, and being tolerant of violence are two different things I think. Judgment drives a wedge. Non-judgment brooks compassion. I wonder, too, if the truly defenseless are attacked…? This is a really hard question. Let me just say right up front that I in NO way mean this to be twisted, as the logical mind will do, into meaning those who are faced with violence they did not choose are to blame or in any way at fault for an experience that arises. I don’t mean that at all. That is a distortion of the question… What I do wonder, is whether or not attack is even in the vocabulary of experience for one who has purified one’s heart and mind completely, and who does not perceive in terms of separateness? Is threat in such a one’s vocabulary of experience? Are such beings, for lack of a better term, who live without fear or doubt and abide in the light of unity, without judgment or separation, brought into experiences where threat of violence by the intolerant is a constant threat? And if so, are they there for any other reason than to teach through their giving?


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hariod Brawn

      “. . . a quality often revered in ‘masters’ of all traditions is their defencelessness, their lack of need to defend.” This appears to be true on the whole, defending emptiness of self is pretty futile I guess. And yet those who have mastered life would still attack with words, knowing that they assault only the warped ideas of phantasms. Did Jesus make judgements in cleansing the temple, and did he use more than words alone?: “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple.” – John 2:13-16.

      As to tolerance in the face of violence, I think this is a tough one to decode on the personal level. Only when we are faced with the actuality of extreme violence against ourselves, our loved ones, or even our innocent neighbour (be they human or not), is our true response made and so discovered. As you say Michael, “there is no right answer” – because no answer can be arrived at in adherence to principles and beliefs. As you say, we may deploy a “temporary necessity” in protecting others from violence. We come back to the gap between our ideals and the warp and weft of life.

      You closing paragraph brought to mind some words from the Buddhist Pali Canon: Metta (Mettanisamsa) Sutta – On the Advantages of Loving Kindness. I thought in particular of the teaching (7) that those who live in loving kindness and extend it without qualification remain unharmed by violence:

      “Monks, eleven advantages are to be expected from the release (deliverance) of heart by familiarizing oneself with thoughts of loving-kindness (metta), by the cultivation of loving-kindness, by constantly increasing these thoughts, by regarding loving-kindness as a vehicle (of expression), and also as something to be treasured, by living in conformity with these thoughts, by putting these ideas into practice, and by establishing them. What are the eleven?

      1. He sleeps in comfort. 2. He awakes in comfort. 3. He sees no evil dreams. 4. He is dear to human beings. 5. He is dear to non-human beings. 6. Devas (gods) protect him. 7. Fire, poison, and sword cannot touch him. 8. His mind can concentrate quickly. 9. His countenance is serene. 10. He dies without being confused in mind. 11. If he fails to attain arahantship (the highest sanctity) here and now, he will be reborn in the brahma-world.”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. jhanagan2014 Post author

        We certainly tackle some thorny and wonderful questions, don’t we? For me, this discussion comes down to two questions “How do I stand in the face of human suffering?” and “Is it right for me to tolerate violence (physical or psychological) against other people?” I believe in the Bodhisattva vow to do my best to alleviate human suffering. The issue for me is not so much What I do, but How I do it. If the action I take is charged with compassion and wisdom, then the “what” will likely be healing and effective. I take my inspiration from King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, and Verse 31 of the Tao Te Ching (I offered my take on the edgy days of Jesus in my post on the Fig Tree). The two classic texts both advocate acting to ameliorate violence and/or injustice–even to the point of defensive war–but to do so without a heart filled with self-righteous rage, and without making the “other” a hateful object. This is how I read the Buddha’s admonition that only love can dissolve hatred, or Lao Tzu’s advice to a General: “Victory is no cause for rejoicing. If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing.” So I stand by my dismay at the Tabloid’s intrusion into private pain, while embracing Michael’s insight into doing so with vulnerability and compassion, and Hariod’s reminder that these general principles are not roadmaps but guidelines or invitations to a creative expression of what is wise and compassionate for us in the here and now.

        Liked by 2 people


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