In 11th grade, I completed an essay and in it, I quoted the biblical phrase, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I wrote a precocious albeit philosophically naïve two pages about the nature of condemnation without comprehension. To my mind, the concept of judging others meant that we should not judge others before we take the time to understand them. And it is a truism that as tribal humans, we tend to dislike anyone who looks unlike us. We feel uncomfortable and fearful of that which we do not understand. Hence, a lack of comprehension often results in condemnation of others. And this is neither wise nor compassionate. Wisdom and compassion both figure prominently in the traits to which I aspire. In the world I live in, I try to understand what someone is saying or doing before I judge and condemn it.
I’m an adult now. So much has changed in the way I view the world, and yet so little has changed. I have a tender heart balanced by a strong jaw. I stand by my friends and family, often to a fault, and I try to cast a naturally judgmental mind aside when a friend is in trouble. But here is the rub: it is impossible to live with honor and mindfulness without judging others.
Hold on dear reader. We need to define terms. To judge means:
1. To pass legal judgment on: The court judged him guilty.
2. To hear evidence or legal arguments in (a case) in order to pass judgment; adjudicate; try: The Supreme Court is judging that case.
3. To form a judgment or opinion of; to decide upon critically: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
4. To infer, think, or hold as an opinion; conclude about or assess: He judged her to be correct.
It is impossible to live, qua human, without “inferring, thinking, or holding opinions.” It is unwise to interact with others without forming judgments or opinions. Without judgment, how can we choose, for example, the man we should marry? Would just any Tom, Joe or Travis do? Without judgment, how do we vote for politicians to lead our country? Without judgment, how do we navigate the twists and turns of our lives?
The clear conclusion, my friends, is that actions matters. Words mean something. Values are not relative. And (gasp) some things really hurt or bother me. That’s right. Now we’re getting to the real issue here. Or more precisely, we are going to apply the rule, that we must judge in order to live mindfully and make wise choices, to a real life situation.
I have this friend. When I met her, I was struck by her larger-than life persona. She talks too loud and laughs too loud and these aren’t bad qualities. These are the special details that endear someone to us. After we became friends, I started hearing rumors. Mutual friends spoke of her drinking, and as the child of alcoholics, the hair on the back of my neck went up, but I resolved to ignore the rumors. We talked more. And because we live in the same neighborhood, I heard a lot more rumors. “Watch out El. She swings,” one friend warned me. “What?” I exclaimed. “You heard me,” my friend replied. “Just watch your back.” I gulped and nodded and shrugged. “Well, the way I see it is as long as she does not speak to me about the swinging or the drinking, we’ll be okay,” I reasoned.
Drinking is a hard thing for me to be around.
Swinging. Wow. That is even worse of a trigger for me than drinking. I believe, more deeply than I could possibly express, that our bodies are temples, blessed and sacred. I have not, nor will I ever engage in a sexual act without feeling love. And I do not believe love can or should be split among recipients. Split love, divided love, destroys the stalk that feeds it; by dividing it, a man or woman destroys it. And when we marry, we take a vow to remain faithful. Words matter. Words have meaning.
A year ago or more, I explained all of this to my friend. I told her I did not want to talk with her or hang out with her while she was drinking. Over and over, she abused the boundary I built to protect my weary soul from alcohol’s trespass. She would write me these lengthy, tearful, desperate and drunken notes at night, and I would listen and write back and try to comfort her. And the next day, I would mildly rebuke her. Often, she had forgotten the entire conversation. Don’t get me wrong: I should have walked away months ago. But I did not. Until I did. More on that later.
One night, she asked me if she could tell me something without my judging her. My chest turned ice-cold. I knew what was coming. Fearfully, I agreed, and she told me her long saga about her best friend, her lover, and some of the details of her bisexual lifestyle. I listened as best I could, and told her I loved her, but did not appreciate or want to hear about any of her sexual behaviors. She agreed, but her need was great, and so was my patience, or perhaps my need to be needed. If I listened to her pour her heart out to me, I was being useful. It is good to be useful.
This uncomfortable dance went on between us for months. I tried to talk with her about everything but drinking and swinging. Too often, she steered the conversation to those two topics and each time I let this happen, I felt the weight and stench of her darkness. It made me unhappy; and yet, too often, I ducked but did not address it directly. I hold myself responsible for not setting stronger boundaries.
Last weekend, it came to a head when she got back together with her ex-lover and insisted on talking to me about it while she was drinking. I do not hold myself responsible for what happened between us when I finally said, in a calm, measured note, “Please do not talk about drinking or talk to me while you are drinking anymore. Please do not talk to me about swinging, or about your rekindled friendship with your lover. That also makes me uncomfortable.” She blew up and accused me of judging her. To her way of thinking, friends do not judge one another. Friends stick together through thick and thin. And for a week, she sent me notes. Needy, angry notes and I stopped responding. I had nothing else to say.
I have judged, I reckon. But what I have judged is her behavior and how it affects me. By making self-destructive, soul-crushing choices, she is choosing a lifestyle that I cannot abide. I will not stand by and watch a friend drink herself to death. And I will not applaud as she sleeps around with other women in contravention of her vows. Words matter. Actions have meaning. Boundaries protect us from things and people that bring darkness into our lives. And I am not blindly condemning someone or something I do not understand. I understand it too well. And it hurts me to see.