Judge Not, James Woods

I’m inspired by James Woods’ criticism of the Parkland survivors.

Yeah, that sounds weird, but inspiration comes where it does. Reading James Woods – once a beloved actor, now a cranky and reactionary fascist on social media (21st century, you’re so fucking weird) – joining the bandwagon of right wingers criticizing the Parkland kids for daring to smile and have a nice time as they process their own tragedies has made me look inwards and question when I do the exact same thing. And I do it all the time.

Not to the teen survivors of school shootings, as far as I remember. But I look at other people and I judge them based on how I think they should be reacting to an event in their lives. I judge them based on a quick glimpse of them – I’m not with them all day, I don’t see their private moments, I don’t hear their discussions with others, I don’t know what’s in their hearts. But I hear a laugh and I think “You should be sadder,” or I see them unhappy and I think “You’re ungrateful.”

The Dalai Lama has said:

The very purpose of spirituality is self-discipline. Rather than criticizing others, we should evaluate and criticize ourselves. Ask yourself, what am I doing about my anger, my attachment, my pride, my jealousy? These are the things we should check in our day to day lives.

This is real wisdom, and it’s practical too. When I find myself judging another person – which I do all the time – I try to stop and turn that gaze back inwards. Very often I find the things that I’m judging in others are things I do myself.

In recovery I’ve learned to never judge another person’s program. Everybody takes their own journey; we’re all headed, hopefully, in the same general direction, but no one is always on the same path together. Everyone needs something different, and they need those things at different times. It’s not up to me to decide for someone else what’s right for them; if asked I can certainly give my thoughts (hopefully based in my experience, not in my judgment), but otherwise I should keep it to myself. And more than that, I should endeavour to not even have opinions on what other people are doing.

One of my favorite quotes from the Buddha is:

“People with opinions just go around bothering each other.”

It’s a modernization of a verse of the Magandiya Sutta, but the modernization really brings it home. By grasping at my perceptions and views I am causing strife not just for myself but for others. By grasping at his perceptions of how the Parkland teens should behave, James Woods is causing strife not just for himself (he’s worked up about this) but for others (this could be hurtful to the teens. And it’s upsetting to other people as well).

But even if we set aside the ‘soft’ aspect of causing trouble and stress, these judgments are foolish in themselves. We simply cannot know the full picture of another person’s life; every human being has a complex and deep history of conditioning and experience that interacts to create who they are right now, and that informs how they respond to different situations. What does James Woods know about the Parkland teens’ earlier experiences that gives him the ability to judge their reaction? And what do I know about James Woods’ life that gives ME the ability to judge his action? None of us know shit.

Please keep in mind that being non-judgmental doesn’t mean refraining from action. But one can take action without passing judgment on the people involved. It’s tricky, and it takes practice, but it can be done.

Recently I have had the opportunity to hear from many people who have been hurt by my words in the past. Some of them have reached out and told me what I said that hurt them, and I will be truly honest with you: my first reaction, many of the times, was an unkind thought along the lines of “Put on your grown up pants. I’m a stranger on the internet who said a nasty comment to you ten years ago – shouldn’t you be able to get past it and move on with your life?”

But that’s the wrong reaction. I don’t get to tell someone how my actions impacted them, I can only take their word that my actions – whether I meant to or not – impacted them negatively. I can’t understand this person’s whole history, and why their previous conditioning and experience brought them to a place where my ill-considered words could hurt them so much.

Looking inwards I know I am no different. There are things that people could say to me that are fairly innocuous, perhaps even friendly, that would be hurtful. The person saying it wouldn’t understand fully why this would hurt me so much, but it’s because I have 44 years of life behind me and those years have impacted me and how I respond. They could judge me for being hurt – after all, the words they used don’t seem so hurtful TO THEM – but hopefully they would understand that my experience is bigger than the small piece they can see in front of them.

We can judge someone when we know them, inside and out. The second we have achieved this, judge away. But the truth is that we can never know someone inside and out. It’s likely that you will never know YOURSELF inside and out (a topic for another day, but being aware of judging others doesn’t mean you should judge yourself. Self-criticism as encouraged by the Dalai Lama isn’t self-judgment), so how can you ever truly know another person?

This doesn’t mean we need to let other people harm us. Removing yourself from harm isn’t judging the other person, it’s recognizing that you’re being hurt. You don’t judge the fire when you jerk your hand out of the flame. Keeping your distance from the flame isn’t judging the flame as bad, it’s recognizing the flame and your flesh don’t interact well.

All hardships and negative experiences are opportunities for us. The Parkland shooting was traumatic, and these teens have turned it into an opportunity to change the country. It’s inspiring. The right wing backlash to them is upsetting, and incredibly hurtful… but I am thankful that it gives me the opportunity to look within myself and examine the ways I behave just like these folks. Seeing my own behavior reflected in others gives me the opportunity to work to change myself. So, thanks for that James Woods.