Thursday, January 24, 2008

Judge not...

There's an old saying: Where there's smoke, there's fire, which most folks interpret to mean "If it looks fishy and it smells fishy, it's probably fish." In some ways this is an important part of the human learning process: the ability to generalize from experience enables us to avoid repeat mistakes.

Two more sayings that my husband uses frequently in dealing with our children immediately come to mind: when they get into trouble, he always asks "So what did you learn from this?" And, to reassure them that whatever mistakes they make contribute to their overall growth, he reminds them that "Good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment."

The problem with generalizations leading to judgment comes when we make assumptions from what we believe to be a moral high ground. Because human beings are very complex creatures, with very complex motivations, we cannot always be sure why someone is doing something we see as wrong, any more than we can always understand our own motivations for thinking something is wrong. But we all know what moral indignation, and the righteous anger that so often accompanies it, feels like.

There was a fascinating cover article in a recent New York Times Magazine on morality which described that moment of indignation perfectly, and then talked about the kinds of beliefs and convictions that, when broken, ignite that spark of anger. But I don't want to get into things like moral relativism or situational ethics. I just want to say that what may look like smoke is sometimes just steam, or fog.

I say this because I spent much of yesterday observing a series of extremely self-righteous emails being sent by someone who clearly thought he had gotten a very strong whiff of fish. When someone called him on it, suggesting quite graciously that he might not have all the facts of the situation, he responded, "Don't shoot the messenger." From my perspective it looked like a man who'd been firing a machine gun all morning was objecting to someone else's nerf balls.

My own response, as an objective observer, was mixed. I was embarrassed and a bit shocked by the venom of the machine gunner. But there was a part of me that was also frightened; a small child in me that wanted to curl into the fetal position in response to the volley of emails. Another part of me leaped into appeasement mode, wanting to explain what was really going on in the situation, so he would back down. But all of it was way more emotional than I was comfortable with, so it seemed important to explore that.

And I realized that I, too, was judging: I was judging HIM for throwing his thoughtless flameballs. And is that any better? Just because experience has taught me that almost any time I express righteous indignation it's going to come back to haunt me does not actually mean I am humble. It might only mean I am careful not to go out on a limb for fear it will break off. It probably means I do not feel safe expressing anger. And it definitely explains why I rarely lust after leadership positions these days: they make me feel WAY too vulnerable.

1 comment:

karengberger said...

I LOVE Chris's quote. Thank you for sharing that. It's one of the best things one could hear after realizing an error. What a great person to parent with!
Love,
K