I have always been a judge-y kind of person. Although I was raised by people who were fundamentally kind and charitable, I picked up early on, the difference between “us” and “them.” We were readers, went to college, listened to classical music, voted for Democratic candidates, appreciated art (and never said things like “my five-year old could have made that”), listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturdays, read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, and eschewed Hamburger Helper and Velveeta. My professor father went to Harvard, my teacher mother to Wellesley, and among their circle of friends, old and new, there were few who exposed to us to anything that would shake the divisions and categories forming in my mind. The familial hard-wiring included fierce support for minorities, “those less fortunate,” and the disabled; the only inherent human characteristic that was openly criticized was being “dumb” when one possessed the necessary intellect not to be.
Going to school in a very upper class middle and high school added an entirely new set of things to judge, including myself. Like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, although I was personally neither attractive nor popular, I took on the prejudices of my more popular peers. It was important to be clear-skinned, slender, athletic, and, if one was a girl, to have hair that could easily be curled back in the Farrah Fawcett wings of the 70s. I met none of those requirements, and so I began not only to judge others who did not meet the standard, but to judge myself in ways guaranteed to lead me straight to a giant can of Neurosis Whoop Ass.
The Beautiful People lived in subdivisions with Indian names; I lived in a neighborhood on the wrong side of the District’s tracks, which was just…a neighborhood. They went to Fort Lauderdale on Spring Break and drank, made out a lot, had sex, smoked pot, went to parties and drank, and generally seemed to me to be living the lives of sophisticated and stunning adult film stars while I was stuck practicing the cello and conjugating French verbs. To this day, unless I exert a great deal of mental effort, and even though I know that some of them have aged, gained weight, and lost their youthful looks, those people live on in my mind as the standard bearers of beauty and cool, and I am still “less” everything in comparison. Don’t imagine for a moment that the irony of judging the world based on the casual cruelty of my social social “superiors” has escaped me.
As soon as I graduated and left that particular hotbed of exclusion, I went to college where I wore black from ancient tweed overcoat to pointy boots from Trash & Vaudeville, took up smoking, hung out with speed-addled studio art majors, and generated a whole new set of ways to slice and dice the world into “good” and “bad.” A full-time cynic, I rejected anything that was cute (“a four letter word”), tacky, conventional, or trying too hard. I recall making fun of “Flyover” with friends from New York, despite the fact that a) I had grown up in Flyover, and b) we were all attending a college in Flyover. I did not watch TV, I listened to Butthole Surfers (sneaking in a little Madonna or Culture Club when I was alone), and I sat through endless Bergman films, feeling that my personal worth was cheapened by the fact that I hated all of them except “Fanny & Alexander,” which was the “easy one.” I was happier and more comfortable at college than I had ever been in high school, surrounded, as I was, by peers for whom quirkiness and neurosis were not only acceptable but the secret handshake. I was, however, adding to all of that baggage about what was “good” and what was “bad,” accepting once again the standards of the “cool kids,” and viewing the world and everything in it through the solipsistic lense of a pretentious, immature and ridiculously jaded college student.
I don’t imagine that anything that happened to me during my formative years was unique; I know literally hundreds of people who were raised in families like mine, or attended the same high school, or went through a period of black-wearing, Faux Urban Cool during college in the 80s. It was probably not the experiences themselves, but something about the way I think that made it so critical for me to assess what was “good” and “bad,” and to view the world through judge-y colored glasses. It could take years of therapy to Figure It Out, but I am far more interested in the process of Cutting It Out. Judging necessarily makes divisions and expresses preferences for “this” over “that,” a process which leads to separation from people, ideas and things that don’t make the cut. It is this kind of process, even when it is intended to be positive and supportive, which leads to division, alienation and conflict. When I write about the wonderfulness of something, like gay male friends, I am (as my husband kindly pointed out) inadvertently criticizing straight men because they are not gay, and probably won’t be. I meant only to be kind and helpful, but it’s still true that deciding what is “good” invariably results in the categorization of other things as “not good.”
This may all seem excessively dramatic and philosophical, but I know for certain that it has never given me a moment’s peace or happiness to reject, accept or classify anything based on my own personal world view. As an adult, I still make an astronomical number of judgments every day, and I am trying to learn to recognize and correct them. I reflexively judge on appearances, quickly assessing everything from hair color (Natural? Roots?) to clothing (Tacky stretch pants? Sweater with reindeer faces?) and find myself, unless I stop the process, deciding on whether I prefer, or do not prefer that stranger. I judge negatively people who don’t read, people who are bigots, people who drive giant gas guzzlers, people who use incorrect grammar, people who raise boys with long, braided “tails” of hair, and people who talk on cell phones in the library. I judge positively people who drive Priuses (bonus for liberal bumper stickers), shop at the Farmers Market, dress beautifully, order their drinks dry, and have children with lovely manners.
I have perhaps failed to mention that despite being extremely and unrepentantly liberal, I have, for twelve years, been married to man who is…not. There has been no greater impetus for me to stop the constant calculus of “good” and “bad” than the dailiness of living with someone with whom I cannot watch the news, but who I love dearly and respect, and with whom I agree with on most things other than politics. He is, to use my traditional labeling, a “good” person with “bad” political beliefs, but from years of living with him, I have learned that while our ideas about means may differ, we share common goals of justice, peace and prosperity. I have also, in my adult life, found much in common with people I would previously have rejected as “tacky,” “dumb” or “wrong,” and observed that humans are, in general, more alike than different. It makes me wonder what might be accomplished on a global scale if more people could see all that they rejected morally, intellectually, stylistically or politically, embodied in a person that they loved, or at least liked a lot.
It is hard, and sometimes painful for me to stop and see that I am judging someone or something that is not in any way “bad,” only different from an entirely artificial standard in my brain. It is also increasingly difficult for me not to notice how often those near and dear to me articulate militant, one-sided opinions with which I can no longer agree. I am neither amoral nor opinionless; I still make choices about what is right or wrong to do in a given situation, but my choices are neither static nor applied as a universal standard. I am hoping that there will come a time when I see everything and everyone (myself included) as nothing more than…what is, without judgment. In the meantime, if you see me in the grocery store standing next to the Greek Yogurt and staring into space, you may safely assume that I have just seen a reindeer sweater, and that I am in the process of convincing myself that it’s all good, even if it has jingling bells and little tufts of Santa beard….