Mind Matters — Questioning Judgment

A funny (or not so funny) thing happened on the way, not to the forum, but to Starbucks. (My favorite haunt, the Barn Shops Café, was closed.) Well, a forum of sorts about contemporary culture. You see I looked at a spot right by the door, then mused that perhaps it was a handicapped spot; then mused that if it weren’t, maybe backing up out of it so close to the parking lot entry some fast talking woman on a cell phone might hit me backing out. Fortunately at long moments of my musing, no other cars were in sight. Ah, so I decide, I can do a pull through beyond this entry parking space. A wee walk, no backing up needed, perchance the parking lot fills with toddlers in runaway mode.

As per usual, I apparently take longer than any woman alive to extricate myself from said car. I ruminate about what Garrison Keillor is saying on Prairie Home Companion; I talk back to the NPR radio show host who asks a dumb question. I look for my wallet and phone and make sure I have my keys in tow.

Hardly leaping out of the car, I see that a woman has pulled up into the close space I left behind. I think, good grief, am I so slow that she’s going to get that Starbuck door open before I do? I, who anonymously donated that space to her? She, unlike I, gets out of the car at what a consider a clip. Ah, but I walk fast and get to the door first only to be met by her remark about my having raced to the door to get in ahead of her. Well, she was right about that, but that was hardly the whole story of my internal dialog of why “I needed to get there first.” I was in competition with my slow self that decided to take on the outer world. So surely she felt righteous about her observation. I tried to communicate a piece of my story to no avail. I was bad. I who usually make it to the short grocery line just as the lady with the overload skids in front of me. I don’t fight for parking spaces either, but darn I just thought how unfair (that’s a dumb thought) that I should get my expensive drink that I don’t need after this lady gets served. After all, she came to that parking lot way after me. Blah. Blah.

Nobody was right or wrong in this scenario. I wasn’t right to think “I should be first, I got here first.” And the other customer wasn’t right in making any assumptions about my motives, let alone my actions.

Point being we are quick to judge ourselves; we are quicker even, to judge everybody else for whatever actions we or they take.

A friend recently shared a story she had read in O Magazine (while sweating on the treadmill at the Y). The article recounted how a young man in a very rigid fundamentalist church community had murdered his mother. It was his maternal grandmother that supported and defended him at the trial. It was she who reported how demeaning and horribly judgmental the mother (and this “religious” community) had been to her grandson. The mother constantly derided her son for his high-pitched voice and “effeminate” ways. She tried through various efforts and exercises to change his voice to make him “more of a man.” His father, a fireman, had been more accepting of him, but unfortunately had died fighting a fire when his son was a youngster. Perhaps this young man was then and is now gay. Perhaps this young man was (and is) questioning his gender, feeling dysmorphic in a man’s body. Murdering his mother was not the moral high road out of his dilemma, but given the psychological prison he encountered with her verbal annihilation of his essence, he may be finding more “freedom” in physical prison. (Then again I fear for his physical safety there.)

At first glance, we may be quick to judge: how could a son be so terrible as to kill his own mother? Re-spect (i.e., meaning to look again) for his story shows a deeper meaning to his unacceptable act.

Or consider the recent story of the caretaker/driver who left his/her autistic patient in the van, found later to have died of hyperthermia (or the grandparent who leaves the toddler sleeping, only to die the same way).

We may at first start throwing stones. (We really threw stones at the young kid who years ago threw an ice ball from an overpass and killed the young mother who was driving—was his action wrong? Yes. But was his intention murder? Absolutely not. His frontal lobe at preteen age was way underdeveloped for clear headed thinking about the consequences of his actions.)

But we need to remember the glass houses we all live in (and around here, they can be mighty fancy).

I do not mean that adults need not be responsible for their actions. However, I would want to go deeper into the story before I jumped to any conclusions. I would wonder some about what would make an ordinarily responsible person forget? How old are they? Are they themselves experiencing some sort of cognitive decline, memory loss? Are there job stressors not being attended to?

Also I would wonder when an institution is involved, what are the failsafe protocols that were or were not in place—the signing in and out of the patients, for example.

Yes, there needs to be accountability and individual responsibility but there needs also to be regard for restorative justice—that nothing happens in a vacuum; the family, the group, the community, the system are the contexts from which arise the tragic stories.

Restorative justice is a concept to which many indigenous cultures have prescribed. This notion allows that if an individual is not behaving morally, righteously, the community not only disciplines the individual but also asks of each other as a group what dis-ease they have created in their milieu to have precipitated the misdeed. In other words, the question is asked how is the community responsible for and to the individual? What needs to change not only in the individual but in the community?

This is not to be confused with a rigid, judgmental-ness or harsh condescension. Ironically, it is just the opposite. In the language and culture of the Aboriginal communities of Canada, statements are used constantly without blame or judgment of the other.

In Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice, Rupert Ross notes (page 104):

“Once I started listening for that nonjudgmental and nonargumentative way of talking about things in the Aboriginal community, it seemed to be everywhere. People said, for instance: ‘Oh, I laughed so hard I hurt!’ They did not say, ‘Oh, he was so funny!, which would invite someone else to say, ‘No, he wasn’t!’ They said, ‘I was so interested to hear those things,’ not ‘Oh, those things were so interesting!’

“… great care seems to be taken not to label things, people or events in terms of personal responses to them or to argue against anyone else’s views about them. Instead, the emphasis is on continually stating the opposite, that your reaction is nothing more than a personal reaction, one which may or may not be shared by others.”

Interesting that this “I-view,” world view is what undergirds a restorative justice in which we cannot really “label” another.

One Canadian Aboriginal Nation, Hollow Water writes:

“People who offend against another … are to be viewed and related to as people who are out of balance—with themselves, their family, their community, and their Creator. A return to balance can best be accomplished through a process of accountability that includes support from the community through teaching and healing. The use of judgment and punishment actually works against the healing process. An already unbalanced person is moved further out of balance.

Does anyone get the feeling that perhaps we in the U.S. might reap some benefit from listening to this Aboriginal wisdom?