We can heal or hurt people simply by the judgements we make about them. When we extend healing to others, we also heal ourselves. The ability to choose between the discomfort of becoming aware of our judgemental habits of mind and the discomfort of being ruled by them, is a vitally important self-management practice.
This week, the small, tight-knit specialist peer group I belong to learned that one of us, (I’ll call him Andrew – not his real name), appears to have committed and confessed to a repugnant crime. Anguished family members are in turmoil, distressed beyond words. Andrew is isolated and tormented. His friends are bereft. Some in our group call for his immediate and permanent expulsion, some wonder how to respond to his need for help, others are speechless. The group’s purpose and activities are completely unconnected with the awful circumstances. We have no predetermined protocols to deal with the situation. What, apart from personal reflex reactions and conventional impulses, ought to or could guide our responses?
I firmly support the need to be held accountable for our actions and to experience the consequences of them. But others’ comprehensive condemnation (especially when collective) can be cruel and permanently destructive. In the months and years ahead, will we be be proud of the attitudes we decide to take and hold now?
Considering these events in the small hours of the following morning, I recalled two personal lessons that shed light on and will guide the attitudes and responses I want to take and hope to sustain. Both stories involve people going out on a limb to do the opposite of conventional expectations. Both may appear to be completely tangential. Bear with. I’ll return to Andrew shortly.
- I once lived in the countryside where getting mail involved eight-kilometre journeys to a village post office. Trips that were often fruitless. I began phoning beforehand to ask Mary if she had anything for me to collect. She would check whatever was there: “Some bills here, Tom. A postcard from Gregory and a letter from your brother in Perth”. Or, “Nope. Nothing today.” Once when I phoned, I got someone called Barbara, standing in for Mary. I made my usual request. Barbara told me firmly that “The Privacy Act provisions prevent me from telling you”. Wait, what? I’ve been breaking rules? “But Mary always . . .”, I began. “Well I’m not Mary”, she replied. “Oh. I see. . .” Uh-oh. Officialdom. Long pause. She went on: “Why don’t you ask me if a trip to the post office today would be worth your while?” So, I did. “If I were you”, Barbara responded, “I wouldn’t bother.”
- As my father was dying, Mum and I gathered the family. Dad wanted to hold on until I returned from the airport with the last of us to arrive in Christchurch NZ, from Western Australia. That brother had made a last-minute booking on one of two flights some three hours apart. The later arrival would be cutting it fine for Dad. I explained the situation to an airport clerk and asked which flight my brother had managed to book. She responded with the familiar, “I’m sorry but the Privacy Act . . . “. Recalling my village post office experience I asked, “Which flight would you wait for if you were in my shoes?” She checked the passenger lists. “I’d wait for that one” she said, pointing at the arrivals board to the flight from Sydney due in 15 minutes. We were all present when Dad faded away.
Many years later those two small acts of kindness can still make my heart leap.
Back to Andrew. Societal “rules” in the form of community expectations, amplified by social media group think, would almost certainly support his permanent casting-out and vilification. It’s what we do, right? But those positions are often not the basis of right relationships. They do nothing to help people heal, or advance us as a species. We all need healing for something. What support would we want from our communities if we ourselves went off the rails and betrayed or damaged those close to us?
Whatever is Andrew’s offending are matters between him, those he has hurt, and authorities likely to hold him accountable to applicable laws. What we (in the peer group) could and I hope will do, is step back thoughtfully, hold our own counsel (be discreet and circumspect in our thoughts, words and acts), and allow those extraordinarily difficult matters to be addressed without further inflaming and awfulising them. I intend to use the circumstances to learn, as I need to learn repeatedly, to love not hate, to heal not hurt, to extend kindness rather than hold harsh judgements. I hope not to follow societal expectations that are normal but unnecessary, unhelpful or unkind. I want to make this peaceful choice with gratitude for yet another opportunity to learn more about becoming who I want to be.
We believe we collect evidence and then use it to make up our minds, but in fact we make up our minds and then collect evidence to support our beliefs. [Barbara Kingsolver, The Moral Universe]
Andrew is one of us, his peers in the group. Like us, a flawed human being; a fellow specialist who supports the group enthusiastically; a brother. There may be no practical reason why he should be ostracised, and good reason to believe that extending some form of loving-kindness, however small, will facilitate his recovery from ignominy. His fall from grace provides opportunities to heal ourselves – which is what can and usually does happen when we give up our self-appointed duty to judge others.
As a pundit recently remarked, if punishment actually worked, the Middle East would currently be a paradise.
Most of us never really see the people we are close to. Our friend may be right before our eyes, but we do not see him. We see our idea of him, a little model we have made in our mind and project on to him, On that we pronounce our judgments. That is why, when we quarrel or clash with someone, the worst thing we can do is to avoid him or her. We are trying to avoid an image in our own mind, which cannot be done. The mind takes some exaggerated impressions, memories, hopes, and insecurities, draws a quick caricature, and then turns up its nose. If they were able to see this projection, the person in question might retort, “That’s not me; that’s your caricature of me. If you don’t like it, you don’t like your own mind.” To heal our relationships, we have to move closer to people we do not like, learn to work with them without friction. When we do this, we are remaking the images in our mind – which means we are literally remaking the world in which we live. [Eknath Easwaran]
If “Andrew” ever reads this, I hope he will also read Jennifer Garvey Berger’s recent and timely blog: Developing Self-Compassion.