I am a reformed, judgmental, know-it-all. Blame it on the hubris of youth where the oxymoron of thinking you know it all when you actually know literally nothing (a la Jon Snow) is practically universal or blame it on growing up in a Southern Baptist church or blame it on the fact that I am a Virgo. Whatever the reason, I knew it all. Well, at least I thought I did.
As a seventeen-year-old freshman in college, I remember turning in a paper in my Psychology class after a trip to the Museum of Tolerance and babbling on and on in the paper about how maybe people are too tolerant and that we should all be more intolerant. As a more mature, developed writer, and thinker now, 23 years later, I want to reach back in the past and slap myself upside the head. I’m sure my teacher rolled her eyes at my blather. I somehow made it out of that class with an A, so I suspect she was either very generous or didn’t read very closely.
I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, I’m sure to the consternation of my parents. At 8 years old, I latched onto the church and made it my thing. It was a place where I finally felt accepted for being different. Growing up as one of the handful of Asian kids in an entire community made me feel like I stuck out like a sore thumb, never really fitting in. The church never made me feel like I didn’t belong, but it did make me feel inadequate (but that’s a story for another day).
When I got married, one of our favorite things to do (though I would never admit it back then), was get together with my friends and we’d all gossip and complain about people we knew, under the guise of trying to figure out ways to “support and love them.” Then when my friends began having kids, I began reading stacks of parenting books and would dole out the advice I gathered (and agreed with), with matter-of-fact-certainty and frown upon those who had unruly, children. Did I mention that I was childless at the time? Who doesn’t love someone giving parenting advice, especially someone who isn’t even a parent?
I was a jerk. Plain and simple.
When I was passing judgment on someone, I failed to consider that person and their journey. I failed to try and understand who they were and where they had come from. In the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit number five of a highly effective person is to seek to understand first, before trying to be understood. I didn’t seek to understand anyone. I didn’t want to.
I was looking at everyone through the worldview of my then very stable, very narrow life. I was looking at other people’s decisions, other people’s actions, and other people’s lives through the filter of my own life and never once considered what their journey or purpose was. I thought I was better than everyone else and the irony was I didn’t actually like myself very much.
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When life came crashing down after finding out of my husband’s extramarital activities with a friend of mine, the know-it-all facade began to crack. I slowly began to see myself as I really was and I didn’t it, so I began to change. It was a process that took 5+ years and is still happening day by day. The catalyst was when I left my husband and my life when I discovered he’d been cheating on me for the third time. It’s been six years (almost to the day) and it was through picking up the pieces that I was able to become more compassionate, more understanding, and more empathetic toward people. Today, I strive to put myself in other people’s shoes, to remember that their journey is not my journey, and to give people the benefit of the doubt first.
When there’s a frazzled mother trying to placate a tantruming child in the middle of a store, I try and remember when that was my child screaming her head off. When a customer service person doesn’t do what I want them to do, I try to curb my frustration and exert extra patience. When someone makes a decision I wouldn’t have made, I try and remember that they are making their decision based on their life, their experiences, and their knowledge. I don’t always succeed, in fact, my first reaction more often than not still tends toward judgment before I remember to practice empathy, but as I continue to “catch” myself and be more mindful of my judgmental-ness, I’m getting better and better at this compassion thing.
All this to say, wouldn’t the world be a better place if next time we want to judge someone, we stopped and remembered that we are all human and we are not all the same? This former know-it-all encourages you to practice a little extra empathy today.