For my own personal realignment, The Seven Deadly Sins should include “Judginess.” I grew up in a family where judgments were harsh about things like improper use of the English language and any display of proletarian vulgarity, but never about anyone’s appearance or other immutable characteristics. I attended school in a very white, very affluent district filled with the straight of tooth, smooth of muscle and otherwise beautiful. In that environment you could get away with splitting an infinitive (as long as you found a coach to fix the problem before you took the SAT) but acne, frizzy hair or the wrong kind of shoes were lethal. I internalized all of it, from every source, maturing into a person engaged constantly in assessment, categorization and judgment.
Sometimes I defend myself on the basis that certain things really are “better.” It is better not to dress your eight-year-old daughter like a Vegas hooker. It is better to know the difference between “its” and “it’s.” If I had any power, any real voice in the universe the world would be without gum snappers, people who dress duck statuary on their lawns, and Kute Kountry Kreations of any variety. It would be a Singapore of my own creation with clean streets and stiff fines for wearing “CSI New York” t-shirts or encouraging children to worship Disney movies instead of reading them books by Wilder and Enright. Look, I say to myself, I turned out well and I follow those rules. Kant would totally be down with the universal application of my own, narrow rubric of acceptable conduct.
It’s also worth noting the fact that I am gifted and talented in my ability to internalize judgment and savage myself. I am scathing in every assessment of my appearance, my writing, my work, and my interactions with other people. I assume that everyone is judging as I judge, and I make the lists for them: her heels were cracked, she dominated the conversation at lunch, she doesn’t have control of that kid. I know what they’re thinking; they’re thinking what I’d think.
Mostly, though, there is no defense. It is a basic Buddhist precept that one should avoid “preference,” the elevation of one thing over another. Separated from faith of any stripe it is better to be compassionate, and to embrace the perceived shortcomings of others as part of their essential humanity. It is also damned hard work. I can suspect that the eight-year-old hooker’s clothes are the result of low income and lack of choice. I can imagine that the yard duck was gifted by a beloved mother, and that its sentimental value far outweighs its violent kitschiness. (There is no viable explanation for snapping gum unless there is an uncontrollable disorder of the jaw muscles of which I am unaware). The rubber band has to be snapped, I have to stop and think about my constant judgments, and I have to struggle against the easy laugh that I get from cynical, snarky observations. I have to go a little deeper.
Yesterday, I caught myself spending an entire Mother’s Day brunch with my family distracted by things at odds with My Own Private Singapore. The young woman wandering among the St. John suits in her shapeless, sleeveless dress with baggy leggings and heavily tattooed arms. The older woman in a long, gauzy white skirt, a black athletic hoodie unzipped nearly to the navel, tanned burnt sienna. The displays set up by the staff, riotous and garish piles of mauve Victoriana that looked as though Krakatoa had swallowed Miss Havisham’s house and regurgitated it onto a series of buffet tables. My mind reeled, clicked, sorted and condemned. It served no purpose, stole my energy and attention, and diminished the warmth and satisfaction of a sunny morning spent with the people I love most.
How is it that I could allow myself to drift into a meaningless and honestly vicious place in my head, surrounded by all good things? It was reflex, to be sure; I have been at it since I was in elementary school.
I also used to pick reflexively at my right index finger, and I stopped. It can be done.
I am imagining a world in which I do not judge, and in which I stop judging myself raw. I will lose my Singapore, but maybe I’ll gain some more realistic mental real estate, maybe a beautiful swathe of Gulf coastline dotted with battered and broken buildings after a terrible storm. There will be pleasing beauty, there will be displeasing ugliness, and there will be constant evolution as the surf rushes in and out, the gulls hunt for food, and people raze, rebuild and survive. It will all just be what it is, and I will live with that.