What is the root cause of the pervasive judgmental tendencies in our modern culture? I was standing in line at the airport, one of the many trips I used to make each month to pick up my daughter for our time together, and I was watching a family from a different nationality and ethnicity. It doesn’t matter which, because it automatically conjures up thoughts, likes, dislikes, prejudices and other feelings simply by saying where they may have been from.
I looked at their three children, the youngest of whom was less than a year old and was alternating between fussing and smiling as his older brother was trying to entertain him. I couldn’t help but feel close to this family as I thought of my own kids at the same time.
It then occurred to me that so many other people were looking at them differently, as if slightly irritated that the kids were making a bit of noise while standing in line. How easily people forget what it’s like to be a child and be bored, uncomfortable, tired and hungry and in a place not of your own choosing. Of course they were making a bit of noise, yet the impatience of others only made it worse. At the same time I found myself enjoying my time in line even more as I watched these young children interact with each other in such a loving way.
Taking a step back, it is interesting to look at where some of our judgmental thoughts come from. Of course not everyone immediately likes each other, but relative indifference is quite dissimilar to irritation with someone for no real reason other than our conditioned past perceptions creeping into the present moment.
The truth is it doesn’t matter where these people were from or where they were going. What matters is that they are people every bit as deserving of love, respect and compassion as anyone else in line.
It reminds me of a story that Malcom Gladwell once relayed in one of his books about a man on the subway whose kids were acting a bit crazy. When someone said to him that he should control his kids more and pay attention, he apologized and said that their mother – his wife – had just died and he was simply happy that they had forgotten the sadness for a brief moment. Instantly the irritation from the onlooker vanished and turned into empathy. But what really changed? The perception and the understanding of the circumstances. The situation itself hadn’t changed at all, yet annoyance turned into love in a split second.
More recently, I caught myself falling into a judgmental thought pattern regarding my son and who all he would be interacting with at his new school. The thought process was a mixture of a tendency to be protective, but also tainted and fueled by stereotypes and my own fears and insecurities. What was driving those? The fact that I even had that hesitation baffled me, so I decided to examine it a bit more for myself.
I realized that recent stories in the media were stoking some of the negative associations I had. In fact, many cultural and racial tensions throughout our country are provoked by the media. I thought I was somewhat immune to it, but I guess I was wrong. After thinking this through, I considered myself fortunate for being able to stop the negative association, examine the fear or prejudice, and reevaluate the situation based on being there fully present. It worked. For me, this was another reason why I find it so valuable for people to do just that, stop a negative train of thought, see where it might be coming from, and evaluate whether or not there is any valid reason for it. There are innumerable benefits for practicing mindfulness in all areas of life.
Of course the media aren’t the only ones to blame for the judgmental culture we find ourselves in today. Much of our conditioning is the product of what our parents taught us, what schools we went to, what churches or other religious practices we were exposed to as well as other social influences. Remember, young people aren’t choosing these for themselves at first, but the more they learn about the good in humanity and connect with others despite their differences, the better off our society will be.
If there is any judgment at all, let it be on the actions of others, not their beliefs, race, gender, orientation, economic status or some other reason. Even then, if something is deserving of ridicule, let it be only those harmful actions themselves, not necessarily the people. I have been particularly critical in the past few years of a group that I used to belong to, and I like to separate out the actions of the group from the otherwise good intentions of the members. In fact, when other former members leave and contact me, I am immediately forgiving, for I realized that judging them as people isn’t necessarily fair. We can change for the better when we have new information and allow ourselves to make positive change. Sometimes that takes a bit more self inspection, correction and courage than we realize.
I’m not a religious man, but the Bible reference of Jesus saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…” is as timeless as the Golden Rule, both of which are Universal Truths found in all great religions and philosophies, even if they’re not routinely followed.
If we all took the time to engage people more and have more compassion in realizing that everyone has a story and a desire to belong, we just might start to drop some of our judgmental attitudes and have a much greater sense of community and appreciation for other people as a result. At the very least we will have much less conflict.