There is a question I sometimes ask myself. I don’t like the question. More to the point I don’t like answering it. Inevitably my answer always begins with a confident “no”, but then it morphs into a ‘maybe’ and usually ends up with a resounding “damn it! yes.”
I ask myself this questions because it keeps me alert. It shakes me up at times when I could just as easily ignore a passing thought.
I have been faced with many situations in my life where I have cringed and shuddered, winced and squirmed during casual or fervent conversations. Conversations where my husband and I are both present, our own points of view sometimes poles apart. I am often confronted by a difference of opinion, a radical statement, a polarized position or a racial slur which leaves me feeling horribly uncomfortable, quietly outraged and occasionally alienated.
How can two people, married for over 37 years have friends who have diametrically opposing opinions to one or both of us. Even one of our children recently asked us how can we be friends with people who are so different from us.
So the question. (Big intake of breath.) Do I judge others who are different from myself? Am I judgmental?
I want to say I am tolerant, accepting, understanding and open. I want to say that no matter what people believe, or say, I have the capacity to hold space for them and their differences. The truth is there are times I genuinely struggle to sit with people who judge other people, races or cultures, which clearly means, I am judging too.
My husband and I grew up in very different circumstances. We were born in completely different countries and experienced vastly different childhoods. Our parents spoke different languages. His parents left their countries of birth to save their lives and mine left their countries of birth to build their lives. He slept on a bed squeezed into a little closed veranda and I slept in a double room with my sister surrounded by ballerina wallpaper.
At thirteen a boy I knew broke his neck diving into the surf at Bondi Beach in Sydney. I made a bargain with God. If he didn’t die, I would marry him. I was romantic and idealistic.
At thirteen, my present husband would conspire with friends to sneak into glamorous venues where bar mitzvahs, weddings and fancy parties were taking place. One boy brought clean trousers, another a clean shirt and one of them would be chosen to sneak into the venue from the back door or climb a fence and fill his pockets with delicious goodies which he brought back to his waiting friends. He was opportunistic and street wise.
At fourteen I listened to my father start his car every morning and drive to the hospital to do his hospital rounds. At fourteen my husband listened to the ambulance arrive at his home to take his father to hospital, never to return home.
At eighteen I became engaged to the boy who broke his neck and at the same time my present husband at eighteen, joined the army. Whilst I was learning how to lift a paralyzed man into a car, he was learning how to shoot a gun and defend his countrymen. Whilst I was walking down the aisle at twenty, he was dodging bullets and fighting a war in Israel. When every friend I had ever known deserted me, he was surrounded by friends whose loyalty was utterly unshakable. We grew up in very different circumstances. We developed different perceptions, different attitudes, different beliefs and even different values.
I grew up in a country that has not known war since I was born. Where people from every continent on earth, live in relative peace. He grew up in a country that has barely known a day without war.
Recently one of our children told me he does not have time for people who criticize and put his ideas down. He wants to be with like minded people and feel supported by his community. I get that. We all want to be with people who think the way we do. We all want to feel seen and heard and understood. And yet unless we avail ourselves to challenge and to enquiry, how can we expand our sense self. Unless we put ourselves in situations where our concepts of right and wrong, and fact and fiction are challenged, how can we courageously stand in the truth of who we are. It expands our hearts and washes clean our souls to allow curiosity and wonder to replace dis-ease and distaste around people radically different to ourselves.
I look across the table where another couple sit. Friends by virtue of the amount of time we have known them. Her voice is loud, and her right-wing opinions, sprinkled with violent solutions to a well worn world issue ring out in the restaurant. I force myself not to look at the other tables to see who hears her declare, “Get rid of the lot of them.”
I feel ill, angry, embarrassed and I silently judge her as a racist, bigoted uneducated idiot. I’m furious with her but especially with myself for being in this situation. Why am I even here… with her.
I turn to my husband and my eyes plead with him to leave. For a moment I don’t ever wan to sit with her again. For a moment I just… want to get rid of her.
And then it hits me that there is actually no difference between her and me. If I can’t bare to be with someone whose ideas and opinions are radically different from my own then I am no better than her. If I sit here in judgment of her judgment, what is the difference between us?
We like to believe that when we connect to like minded people and talk about good relationships, progressive ideas, philanthropic endeavors, real change takes place. And often it does. But that can never be the whole story.
It is in the space between our differences in which true healing takes place. It is in vastness of our imagination where, if we dive deep enough we might be able to touch a modicum of understanding for the reason people think, speak and believe the way they do. In the words of Baruch Spinoza, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”
Understanding does not mean condoning. There are clearly lines crossed through fear, fear that leads to hatred. There are clearly lines crossed where love and devotion has turned into fanaticism and militarism. Where vision has turned into blind faith.
However, if we can sit in wonder and curiosity that this person, with whom we share our home, our town, our city, our country, indeed our planet, is not wrong, is not bad, is not even so different, but rather is a reflection of all we have not yet come to understand, love or appreciate about ourselves, then we can begin to answer the question, “Am I judgmental?” it a very different way.