I was having lunch with a dear friend of mine recently. She’s known me since I was thirteen so if you are doing the math that’s almost 29 years. I met her when she started teaching the teenagers Sunday School in our “New Age” church. She knows me in all the ways that actually matter. She knows my entrenched adolescent parts, and she has watched the sometimes glacial progress of the evolution of the parts of me that I didn’t allow life to irretrievably harden into little black lumps of coal. She’s known me since the time I moved beyond willingly and fun-lovingly doing stupid human tricks to amuse my parents’ friends, to the time when I began to notice that the world was noticing me, appraising me, and deciding if I was worth pursuing. She was an important sounding board as I moved through toxic relationships into the one that has meant everything. And she’s watched me navigate my way through education, career, setting career aside and putting children first until, well, now.
Karen was the first adult in a position of authority who dignified my teenaged self by engaging in serious discussion when the agnostic in me reared its head and started to question everything I was being told by the “powers that be” about what God was and how the universe supposedly worked. (Hear the attitude in that last part right there? That’s been with me for a LONG time. And that skepticism? I’ve been a questioner practically from day one.) At times throughout my life, Karen’s either been a catalyst for, or played a role in my effort to expand. She has said things to me that cracked my locked heart open when no one else could, try though they might. She challenges me to be my best self, and she holds me accountable. Like a few other key people I hold dear, Karen represents the institutional memory of my life. So to say that she’s important to me is an understatement.
Anyhow, as we ate Karen and I meandered from subject to subject and finally rolled around to talking about how two people, even those whom it seems would have almost identical relationships to an event (e.g. siblings) can have radically different perspectives, and therefore make very different judgments, about said situation or set of circumstances. And as is typical of most of my post meet-ups with Karen, after we parted ways, our conversation triggered a bunch of thoughts for me with respect to this topic. I got to thinking about why it sometimes seems like such a crap shoot to try and suss out how someone, even someone I think I know pretty well, is likely to view or respond to a situation or a person’s behavior. I mean, really, sometimes I think I know what someone’s reaction is going to be and I end up being so far from right that it’s just plain ridiculous.
I don’t know about you, but there’s this recurrent conversation I have with my closest friends about how we think others view and judge us – our actions, our choices, our lives, our things. My perception of how I think I am being judged can affect both the decisions I make, and / or how much I choose to tell the world about the decisions I’ve made. Admittedly, some of that is good. But it also means that I don’t ever show all of my cards. I don’t live completely out loud. I dream about it. I imagine the intense freedom that would go along with it, but I don’t do it because I was “raised right”.
So when this conversation comes up, it inevitably ends at the same conclusion – that a judgment someone makes about another is more about the person making the judgment than the person being judged. (No doubt one of the nice things about this point-of-view is that it helps take the sting out of being on the receiving end of harsh judgment.) So, do you buy that? I do. My take on it is that we are all just beings who have no choice except to be egocentric. We can’t help but view the world from a singular perspective, through a lens that’s been cut and polished from the hardened and compressed layers of our unique set of experiences that get laid down one atop another atop another over a lifetime. They are things like the beliefs our parents pressed into us; our position in a sibling line-up and how that affects how we relate to others and they to us; what we’ve bought into from society; the parts of ourselves that we’ve managed to develop into either good, solid qualities or nagging insecurities; the baggage we drag along from past relationships; etc.
There is actually only one place from which I can assess the world – from the place where my body takes up space, via my senses, especially my eyes. I can earnestly try to imagine something from another person’s point of view, but I can never truly have that point of view as my own. I only get the one that I’ve spent my lifetime developing. And this makes sense if you think about it for just a second. Even conjoined identical twins, arguably the best possibility of two people being able to have an identical filter through which they view the world, still see the world from two different angles. It’s true that the space that separates those angles seems infinitesimally small in the scheme of things, but still they receive information about the world from two different positions. And that difference makes a difference.
I’m not suggesting that we can’t rise above our ego centrism, feel empathy, and act in ways that reflect that, I’m only saying that it is the default position from which our worldviews emanate, where we forever ask the question, “how does this affect me?” I tend to judge harshly something that challenges or threatens my worldview, and I tend to proclaim my support for people, things and situations that support my worldview. It’s overly simplistic, unmindful, and habitual, but I know I’m not the only one who does this.
When a harsh judgment is unequivocally declared and hurled in my direction, usually after my thin skin has been pierced and I’ve licked my wounds, I marvel at how I managed to be surprised yet again by how strongly held an opinion can be. Ever notice how an opinion that’s being bear-hugged for all it’s worth usually comes along with a total lack of willingness to consider the possibility that any other legitimate point of view exists? I got a real-life version of this today.
I was at the gym getting ready for a class and listening to this one trainer rail on unsympathetically with his rigid opinions about all manner of things political. Ever heard the expression “sometimes right, never in doubt”? (Side note: he’s a middle-aged hardass of a guy who used to have a hand in training the Georgia Tech football team. He’s gruff, hardcore, and will push you until you are lying flat on the floor, your body in full-scale revolt begging for mercy. Then he’ll tell you to get your ass moving because it isn’t quitting time yet! So some of his no-nonsense, “I know what’s best for you” ways are beneficial.) After he spent himself verbally spewing his thoughts, he loudly threw out a jab line or two about all the “bleeding-heart liberals” running around these days and the trouble they cause. (I couldn’t help but smile to myself because no doubt he would put me straight into that category if we discussed issues.) But it made me wonder why he was so unbending.
Listen, I’m as guilty of proclaiming a judgment about something as the next gal. But as I age, I notice a lot sooner when something seems to have unreasonably gotten my knickers in a twist, and I’m glad that I’m softening rather than becoming more rigid in my thinking. I’ve always been pretty open-minded, but I find I’m increasingly willing to consider other viewpoints, or at least hear what they are, even about something that’s considered quite controversial. And I also find myself asking why it is that something has gotten me all riled up when it has. If I have a particularly strong reaction to something, I need to look at what that’s triggering for me, and that can sometimes be uncomfortable.
Maybe you agree with me. Maybe you don’t. It’s okay if you have a different opinion. Your opinion would be wrong, but I’m okay with that.