How many times have you driven down the street, seen someone on the side of the road, and instantly formed an opinion of them? Or about the people you see in the grocery store? Or the people sitting next to you in church (the ones you see every week, but don't really know)? If you're being honest, I'm guessing a lot. For the most part, we all do it. Some call it “getting a vibe,” or being intuitive about people, or reading people. But let's call it what it is: being judgmental.
I think we're hard wired for it for some reason. Perhaps it spills over from our need to judge whether a situation or our environment poses a danger to us. Or from a need to make sense of the world around us. Whatever the reason, we feel the need to pass judgment on the people around us nearly constantly. Which is probably not a bad thing. It helps to keep us safe, it helps us to know when people are probably not the kind of people we want to invite into our lives, and it helps us think about the way we do or don't want to live our lives.
What's bad is when people make these judgments based on little to no information and then feel the need to voice those judgments out loud, and more pointedly, to be ugly about it. When I was much younger, I was certainly guilty of it myself, though I didn't realize it at the time. I grew up in a conservative, financially comfortable family. My social views were a reflection of those I had heard all my life, from family, friends, and people in the community. I didn't think anything of it. And I assumed I was right. When I drove down the street and saw a guy with a sign, I always thought, “Jeez, go get a job.” I'm ashamed to say that sometimes, I even shook my head in disgust. My judgment of these people were that they were lazy and unwilling to work, waiting for handouts from people who worked hard for what they have. But my experiences over the past decade have taught me how wrong I was. In this example, and many others like it.
In 2000, I had been recruited by a major financial services company to fill a lucrative position with plenty of growth potential that had been created for me. They relocated me to another state and I was on my way. But a few days after arriving, I was badly injured in a four car accident. I won't go into all the gory details, but I will say that despite seeing dozens of specialists, going through all the torturous therapies they ordered, submitting to the endless tests and treatments, being thoroughly convinced that I was going to get better and back to work, and even attempting to go back to work, I have not been able to hold a job for over a decade. Needless to say, that turned my world upside down. I was able to hold on to employment disability for about a year, and finally gave in to applying for Social Security Disability in 2005, which took two full years to get. So the six years or so in between were incredibly difficult, and most definitely life changing.
I found myself in a situation where it was simply impossible to support myself and my child. I wound up living in very low income areas and received help from government and private social programs for everything from food and housing costs to transportation. I received food from food banks and even occasionally ate in soup kitchens. Going to these programs for help was humiliating, but to add to that, I was constantly degraded by many of the people that worked for them and often in front of other strangers. On top of that, I routinely heard people around me saying the very same terrible things about me, as a recipient of that help, that I had thought or said about others before. I was stunned at the way I was treated. I was college educated, skilled, extremely hard working, morally sound, and had willingly and without complaint paid my taxes that helped fund some of these programs since days after I turned sixteen. It was without question the lowest point of my life.
During that time, I met and spent time with homeless people, people with severe physical and mental disabilities, with severe drug and alcohol addictions (often driven by the physical and mental ailments, and the inability to deal with the living situation they were in), and people who had spent most or all of their lives just struggling to survive. These were people I had never been around in my life. I had only occasionally seen them on the street or on TV. I really knew nothing about them. But now I realized, I was one of them. Not because I was a bad person or had done anything wrong, but because life dealt me a hand I wasn't expecting and didn't have the resources to properly handle. And because I was one of them, one of the perpetually “down on their luck,” they talked to me. They opened up to me. And I learned more than I ever thought possible.
I found out that many people were just like me, they had been hit with an injury or illness that caused them to lose everything. Some had had nice jobs, lived in nice homes with a good family, then were hit with a medical problem or laid off from a job and simply couldn't find another. Many had been born into nothing with no one in their lives to tell them they didn't have to remain that way. Many had such terrible afflictions or addictions that they were unable to sustain themselves physically and financially. The stories were varied, but they were all heartbreaking. Never once did I meet someone who was simply too lazy to get a job. Never once did I meet a person that preferred living on welfare (which the majority of people who have never been on it have no clue how much of a pittance welfare really is) or on the streets to having a job, a home, and a loving family. Never. Not once.
I'm not saying that they were all great, honest, loyal people. For many, life had hardened them and they lived by the rules of survival. Take the lady I lived next door to for over a year and a half. She was on Social Security Insurance for mental illnesses, and the single mom of two children. I couldn't stand her personally for a number of reasons and knew that she did, indeed, take advantage of some of the social programs in ways she shouldn't have. I also thought that her mental illnesses were not of a nature that would have interfered with her getting a low-paying, unskilled job if she really wanted to. However, after getting to know her, I found out that she was one of eleven children of a single mother. Her mother had been uneducated and unskilled, and had never really worked herself. She taught her children how to scam stores to make money and how to break into abandoned houses and strip them of copper plumbing to sell. Her stories of wrongness were endless, but she had no idea that they were wrong. To her, that's just what people did. She could probably have gotten a job, but I doubt seriously she would ever be able to hold onto one for any length of time. Anywhere. She came to me constantly, asking about common sense things I thought pretty much every person should know. She never finished high school. She had no work skills, no education, no people skills, no life skills. Her story was a common theme among the people I met.
So many people told me their stories, and I listened. Intently. I'll never forget the ones that said they had never really known where their next meal would be coming from; not for years, or in some cases, their whole lives. Or the ones that had lived on the street for decades. Or the ones that had never lived in a nice place. Like one with a bathroom. I was saddened by the women who had lived in constant fear of being attacked while living on the street, with no safe haven. And by the ones that had never had any family or friends other than the ones they made on the street or in the soup kitchen. Most of these people, even the ones that lived in apartments like mine, had absolutely no resources and were completely dependent upon what little they could get from the various social agencies and on the kindness of strangers. The majority of the stories were sad, many downright difficult to listen to. These people were nothing like I thought they were. Their stories weren't even close to what I had imagined. And I started to question, if I was so wrong about them, what else was I wrong about? Who else had I misjudged?
As it turns out, I was wrong about a lot of things. I had misjudged a lot of people. Because I've always been a storyteller, I've also always been a storylistener. I'm insatiably curious about everything. So I asked people about themselves and their lives. And they talked. About everything, and I do mean everything. I was surprised at how open people will be if you just sit and listen and be respectful of the things you hear. Especially since for many of these people, no one had ever been interested in them and no one had ever listened to them. So they talked freely about things I would never have thought virtual strangers would sit down and tell me. Boy, had I misjudged people. All this time I had thought I knew people so well, but I was really just an idiot.
I now never presume to know why someone isn't working, why they're getting divorced, why they treat other people they way they do. I don't tell myself they should be working here, or they should be with this person or not be with that one, or how they should raise their children or spend their money or keep their house or dress or eat or speak. It's not for me to say what others should do with their bodies, who they should love, where they should live, how they should live. I have my opinions of course, because I'm human. But I try hard to remember that I really have no idea what life is like for that person and to keep my opinions to myself. I try hard to look at things from all sides. I give people the benefit of the doubt. The only exceptions to my “it's not for me to judge” rule is when I see someone being harmed, particularly a child. But for the most part, people's lives are their own. We have no idea what truly goes on behind closed doors. We have no idea what road they've traveled just to get where they are. Any opinions we form about strangers and acquaintances are probably wildly off-base. And when I hear people passing judgment on others they don't know, I often will speak up for the person being judged. Because I know now what it's like to be on the other side of that judgment. I know how wrong people often are. And every single day I try very, very hard not to be an idiot.