For a good ten years, I didn’t confess being judgmental. Not because I was a saint or because I was too hardened a sinner, but simply because of a poor definition. I thought that “judging” someone meant condemning him to hell and I’m really good at not condemning people to hell. I’m so aware of God’s mercy and his desperate desire for each soul that I’m not even willing to consign Hitler to hell with certainty–and the Church is with me on this one.1
But I’m starting to realize that judging–the sinful variety–is broader than that. And so pervasive. Reading through the comments on my post on kids at church (which has 15,000 unique visitors and 1000 facebook likes and I’m seriously freaking out over here) has been moving and powerful and convicting. But it’s also shown me just how easy it is to get caught up in what other people are doing wrong.2 This got me thinking about Mother Teresa’s famous quotation:
It’s so hard not to be angry at someone when all you see is how his behavior falls short of what you think it ought to be. And the angrier you get, the harder it is to love him or even to love yourself. I’ve found, in a few specific relationships particularly, that it became nearly impossible not to be constantly furious at people until I changed. I had to stop praying that their behavior would change and start praying that I would stop obsessing over it.
I realized in prayer today that I am a super-judgmental person. I’m just judging hearts, not souls.
Yeah, that makes it okay.
But I judge everybody all the time. I judge you on your grammar and your wardrobe and the book you’re reading and, yes, how your kids behave at Mass. And I saw in the comments on my post that so many people were upset with somebody–their kids or someone else’s kids or other parishioners or a pastor or church in general. Most people were clearly trying to love and forgive and work through it, but it just got me thinking.
Your goal in life is to be a saint. God willing, you’ll bring other people along with you, but you can’t fix the people around you. You can love them and support them and even sometimes correct them, but focusing on other people’s vices, even when they are very real and obvious and hurtful vices, isn’t generally going to help anyone.
I knew a guy once who was just sulky. I hated him for it until it occurred to me that maybe his options were to sulk or to rage. Maybe his sullenness was actually a demonstration of heroic virtue. Here I was thinking he was a rotten person because he wasn’t trying to be chipper when he was upset, and maybe all along he was earning a white martyr’s crown because he wasn’t screaming at anyone.
So I began to wonder–is it possible that everybody’s really doing the best they can?
Maybe the reason they don’t correct his quiet talking in church is because the alternative is screaming and they’re actually quite proud of him.
Maybe she pointed out the cry room because she raised kids in a church without one and really thought you’d appreciate the option.
Maybe he was up all night hearing the last confession of a dying man and doesn’t realize how harsh he was.
Maybe she really has no idea how short her shorts are.
Maybe he’s homeless and the jeans he’s wearing to the Easter Vigil are his best clothes.
Maybe he wanted to complain 50 times since walking in but only let himself say that one thing.
Maybe she only says those things about other women because she’s terrified that she’s worse than they are and gossip seems the best way to hide it.
Maybe she’s from small town Mississippi and doesn’t have any idea that you stand-right-walk-left because she’s never even been on an escalator before.
Maybe he’s not turning–even though the light’s been green for a full 4 seconds–because his son’s in the hospital and he can’t see through his tears.
Maybe she keeps talking during Mass because she really thinks it helps other people enter in when she adds her commentary.
Maybe he smokes like a chimney because the alternative is a much harder drug.
Now maybe I’m a little ridiculous in concocting these elaborate explanations to excuse people’s behavior, but I’ve found that I’m less angry and more loving when I start to imagine that there’s some reason that people are doing things I wouldn’t do. And really, there are reasons. Maybe there aren’t explanations that completely excuse everything, but I can’t know what you’re struggling with that makes you whine or dress or parent or drive that way. And when I recognize that, I’m so much happier because I’m letting go of my anger and just trying to love.
Perhaps if I were a saint, I could love people without having to exercise my imagination so liberally. Maybe then I could see only that they’re children of God and not feel the need to analyze and categorize.
But this is where I am right now. Instead of looking down on you, I’m going to try to assume the best, to see how hard you’re trying. Because I want you to see my efforts, not my failures, I’ll try to do the same for you. I’m doing the best I can. I think most of us are.
- We know for certain that there are people in heaven. It’s hard not to believe that Judas is in hell given Mark 14:21, but while the Church teaches that there is a hell, there’s no official teaching that there’s anyone in it. Private revelation in spades, but nothing dogmatic that I’m aware of. If you’re interested in this, check out von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? [↩]
- No, I’m not talking about you. It was nobody in particular. Blame the Holy Spirit. I’m not judging you, I promise! [↩]