Beware falling into the judgment trap

  • September 30, 2010
“It’s hard getting to church in the city,” a man remarked. “By the time you’ve finished judging everybody you see on the subway, you’re not really in the frame of mind for church.”

Why is it so difficult for us to stop judging? Even becoming aware we’re doing it is a task-and-a-half. The subway man may be readier for church than most of us, since he at least sees that he’s judging.

Senior devil Screwtape, writing to his junior-devil nephew Wormwood (as recorded by C.S. Lewis), gives guidance on keeping Wormwood’s human “patient” destined for damnation. He’s already scolded Wormwood for allowing the man to become Christian, a huge tactical loss to “the Enemy.” Fortunately, from the devils’ point of view, the man is far from unassailable in church. Screwtape writes (Letter 2): “When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.”

Lewis understood both how prone we are to judging and how easily we disguise from ourselves this truth, so readily apparent to the unclouded eye. We wear judgment as tightly as the blue jeans of a rock star, till we either forget it’s there or think it’s part of us. Some may be more apt to judge others, some ourselves.  

How can we possibly pry off this second skin? A slightly unsavoury analogy: it’s said that body lice were once so common they were thought to be part of the human body. The first task wasn’t how to get rid of them, but simply to see them as they really were. Learning to see ourselves as judgers may be depressing, but it’s a liberating moment. It’s alarmingly subtle. (“Wormwood” is a fitting name for a junior devil encouraging his subject to judge others: judgment worms its way into our souls.)  

A few days ago, I had dinner with a friend. Violet discussed her woes at work, quickly stringing a long verbal necklace of worries. Feeling open-minded and kind, I helped sort out who was doing what. We were sitting by a window, and the sun was burning my eyes; it was hard to see Violet across the table. She suggested I come and sit on her shaded side. Somehow sitting beside, instead of sitting opposite, changed things. Rather than sorting her out, I found myself looking at what she was looking at — and feeling. Invisible! She felt invisible. I, her enlightened friend, contributed to that feeling. Instead of seeing Violet, I’d tallied her faults and virtues. It wasn’t that she was invisible, but that I couldn’t see, precisely because I thought I could. The moment I got out of her way and sat with her, Violet started to see the way out of her difficulty.

Getting out of the judgment trap is tough. This is partly because we need to exercise judgment. Judging is divine work. Not being God, we can’t rightly judge either others or ourselves, because our vision is limited. But we’re called to practise discernment, to help each other grow towards the good. Without discernment, our lives have no direction; we bump into each other in the dark or go round in circles.  

Fortunately, the universal Christian tradition is that we can’t, shouldn’t, needn’t discern on our own. We have a long, beautiful tradition of spiritual guidance. A good spiritual director can re-adjust those tight-fitting judging jeans, or at least awaken the desire for better attire. They can sit beside, rather than opposite, and help free us to our true selves: the self God loved into being and Christ loved into freedom, but one we may have trouble allowing to come out of hiding. God’s much more convinced of our goodness than we are, and a spiritual director may be, too.  

This month we commemorate a beloved spiritual teacher. Teresa of Avila wrestled for years with her own vivid personality, which did not always please others. She grappled with intense experiences, which some in her time thought diabolical, and in our time might consider psychologically disturbed. She suffered others’ harsh judgment, and her own of herself.

Her confessor, Francis Borgia (the Jesuits remember him on Oct. 3), helped her believe her experiences were God-given. Her spiritual director, Peter of Alcántara (Franciscans, Oct. 22), helped her to trust and use her spiritual visions in her work of reforming and teaching.  

Like Teresa, we may feel we struggle alone, and such aloneness can help us fall into judgment of self or others. Spiritual directors aren’t easy to find (we need more, and need to promote them more) but they are worth the search. While waiting for a living one, we can spend time with those who have left written guidance, including St. Teresa (feast day Oct. 15).