Reserving Judgment


***This all started as I thought to myself one day: we’re all on different journeys, at different rates, with different abilities and resources. I have to stop being so judgmental. I then decided to write this super long essay that somehow connected these thoughts to plants.


I’ve grown plants from seeds before. You fill a seed tray with fresh soil from the garden section of Home Depot and feel like a domestic goddess while doing it, wearing your new garden gloves that you bought while waiting in the check-out line (because you can’t find the other pair you never used). As you drive home you imagine all of the things you will grow for the gourmet meals you don’t even know how to make. Once you’ve distributed enough soil, then you carefully push a seed down into the middle of each cup–not too far down–but enough so each seed can be covered. Then, firmly pat the soil down before sprinkling a little water to moisten it. You will feel like a rockstar with a green thumb for successfully making it look like something that might actually be viable. Next: your vigilance for a few weeks to make sure there is enough water and plenty of sunlight (but not too much!). Assuming you didn’t mess up any of the steps, one day you’ll go outside and find tiny seedlings poking through the dirt. Each successive day will bring more growth, until one day you have proper plants in need of transplanting.

At this point I should disclose that this isn’t an essay on gardening. To tell you the truth, I suck at gardening. I have only grown sunflowers and strawberries with consistent success, but only because they are very forgiving plants. I just wanted you to have the image of the seedlings in your mind.

Here’s the thing about the seedlings: they are all guaranteed to grow differently. Some will never push through the dirt. There will be robust seedlings that grow quickly. Some will be the late bloomers. Even for the stronger ones, there is still a long journey ahead of them. They have to survive being transplanted. There will be more growing to do. It’s hard to say which ones will produce the prettiest flowers or the juiciest fruits or the crispest vegetables. Only time will tell. Also, a gardener has to consider numerous external factors that impact the plants, like insects and disease. Nothing is guaranteed–the seedlings could easily end up in a compost pile, decomposing amidst a heap of food scraps.

I was thinking about the seedlings in the context of our human lives.

I’m a really judgmental person. I’m trying to curb this. I want to get better. I want to have more restraint in the way that I tend to jump to conclusions. But here’s the thing: how can I not judge somebody for espousing rhetoric that is hurtful to other people?

Recently somebody posted on a mutual friend’s Facebook saying that women should be submissive to men, according to his interpretation of the Bible. Nobody else said a word on the string. Now, maybe people were just avoiding an internet flame war, but this wasn’t just trouble-making snark. This was a real conversation in which the individual truly believed that a higher being created females to be obedient to men. I can’t accept teachings that a person should be submissive to another person because of their sex. That’s absolute medieval hogwash and I find it difficult not to judge the man who said it, or the people who said nothing.

It’s hard to not judge people who have made hideous mistakes. The crack addicted parent who is negligent of their child, for example.

People who seem to constantly make bad choices that perpetually complicate their lives. I know you know those people. I know them too.  

Politicians who say racist things and make decisions that hurt people.

The people who vote for those politicians, the ones who stay silent even when other people are hurt.

People who exploit others.

Anyone who causes other people pain.

Dishonest people. Vain people. Greedy people. Lazy people. Shallow people. Fake people.

Even the jerk from this morning who kept weaving in and out of traffic and cutting people off. And the punk who parked behind me this afternoon and wouldn’t move.

The list could go on and on.

Still, even when I feel justified in judging another person, I need to get better at reserving my judgement.

I have to remind myself that I can not judge a life that I have not lived. It reminds me of what my dad used to tell us when we were kids: you never know the burdens that other people carry.

It’s not easy. We are human beings and we form opinions. I have a lot of opinions. I’m constantly having to remind myself to hold back, although I am getting better with age.

But how can I not form an opinion about people, thereby judging them? If somebody says or does something that hurts other people, or hurts me, I am going to have an opinion. If I stay silent, I feel like I am passively agreeing with their opinions. If I don’t say anything, I silently convey to the other person that it is okay to keep doing what they are doing, or saying what they are saying. If I turn the other way, it is a form of empowering the other person. But on the other hand, if I am quick to fire off my opinions, I will come across as judgmental. People don’t like judgmental. Judgmental shuts doors. It makes people clam up and not want to talk to you. If they don’t want to talk to you, then you’ll never have a chance to engage in dialogue that may lead to common ground, and then we find ourselves in a polarized society that no longer embodies our human strengths.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Things that matter.

I guess that’s the starting point. We have to figure out what matters, and then choose our battles accordingly. But like a child in a classroom who feels lost when their teacher says “only highlight the important points,” but never really feeling like they know what’s important without guidance, we too can find it difficult to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter. It is often easier to opt for “doesn’t matter” because that’s the path of least resistance, and we as humans tend to be prone to want to avoid confrontation, even at the detriment of others. It’s our selfish human nature. It’s something we have to learn to control rather than succumb to.

I think it’s a fine balance. People who stand for nothing are terrible in my book (there I go again judging!), but I can understand why a person may not stand for something important. I don’t condone it. I don’t promote it. But I can understand that they may have reasons.

I can’t stay silent about it.

Therein is the conundrum. How can we change what we don’t like without being judgmental?

I think it comes from our modeling–how we live our lives. How we treat other people. How we connect with other people. The value we contribute to society. A steadfast commitment to helping others and being willing to learn and maintain a growth mindset.

I like to think that’s what MLK Jr. meant when he mentioned silence. It’s not about your words. You can engage in internet flame wars and you can tell off your uncle at Thanksgiving or banter with your neighbor–words often do nothing but inflame. Actions are different. Actions show investment in your beliefs. Taking action shows a commitment. People respect action. People pay attention to the ones who are more than just words.

I’m not talking about the Westboro Baptist Church kind of taking action.

I’m referring to the kind of action where somebody stands up for another person’s dignity. Action that involves respect, love, empathy, and caring for others, even when things don’t necessarily directly impact us. Taking action to help people feel safe and included in society. Taking action to leave this world a better place for the generations to come–caring for people and animals who have not even been born yet.

I have to remind myself that people are just like the seedlings and they don’t all grow at the same rate. For humans, I’m not referring to physical growth, but rather their emotional intelligence, ideas, knowledge, perspectives, opinions, and experience. All of the stuff inside of us that make us who we are.

Somebody once mentioned adults not having any excuses because they are “fully cooked” compared to a child. I pointed out that I knew a lot of “half-baked” adults. There is no magical bridge you get to cross from childhood to adulthood where you become suddenly enlightened about everything in life. It’s a lifetime journey with no guarantee of any enlightenment.

I think about my own life, and how much I’ve learned from 20 years ago, 10 years, 2 years, even yesterday.

The problem is that we all experience life differently. Some people have terrible trauma as children that impact their development. Others, like myself, were lucky enough by some cosmic roll of the dice to live in households where we enjoyed vanilla upbringings and were able to grow in the cocoon of a safe childhood. We all inevitably experience our lives not going as planned, but for some people it happens later than others. For me, I didn’t feel that kind of significant pain until my husband died and left me a single mother when I was 34 years old. Ultimately pain impacts our identity. Our experiences, knowledge, relationships, and the good old fashioned trial and error–it all shapes who we are, and no two people will have the exact same experience. Even siblings who grow up in the same household will not have the same experiences.

I have a fondness for senior citizens. It sounds weird, but as a Girl Scout we would visit senior homes. I also have years of experience visiting my grandparents, much of those visits occurring in senior complexes. Senior citizens are fascinating to observe. At a certain age they all start to look similar with their wrinkled skin and white hair and the common ailments that make them dependent on walkers and hearing aids and such. I’ve observed how people become the neighbors of other people who they would have never associated with earlier in their lives. At the senior complex everyone lives in one place. They eat at the cafeteria together. Play bingo together. This would not have happened when they were younger and more judgmental about their relationships. There is something about aging that levels the playing field.

We start out that way as children. Children will play with anyone. They don’t see income or race or gender or anything. Children only see other young human beings. That’s enough for them. It’s ironic that it takes us a lifetime to revert back to our open-minded origins. 

No matter who we are, what color our skin is, how much money we have in the bank account–nothing changes the fact that we are all on a journey headed in the same direction.

And we travel at our own pace. We grow in our own way. Like the old proverb suggests, the best thing we can do is “bloom where we are planted.”

When I think about people in this context, it helps me soften my judgement toward them. Some people may be still half-baked. Be gentle. We all at our cores have fragile egos, no matter how tough we pretend to be.

Life is hard. Our hearts and minds are not shatterproof.

Recently I listened to a podcast that discussed meeting people “where they’re at.” I think that’s where the gentleness comes in. Big stick diplomacy never usually works. You can’t drag somebody alongside of you.

By not judging people, it isn’t that we agree with their choices or actions. It’s about giving people the space to continue learning and growing. Judgment writes a person off. Open-mindedness and respect gives another person the chance to do better.

We don’t do any of this through our silence. Rather, as Dr. King implied, we must take action in the fight for justice. Our actions and modeling are the most powerful things we can do to influence others. It is only through our action will somebody else want to walk beside us. People don’t follow words. They follow movements that resonate with their values.

Now I can’t help but think about people as seedling, with a judgey voice whispering into my ear (the one that isn’t supposed to be judgmental):

You got too much water.

You’re going to be a beautiful sunflower.

You’re going to survive…barely.

You won’t.

You need more time.

You’re a fighter.

You’re a fragile one. 

You’re a late bloomer.

But aren’t we all late bloomers in something? I know I am. A proud late bloomer. Proud to keep growing, because I know if I’m growing, that means I’m still alive. If I’m still alive, then there is always hope for sunnier days.


For those of you who didn’t see social media last week, I had an essay published on Tiny Buddha. The Betrayal of Expectations: Coping When Life Doesn’t Go to Plan. Check it out!

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