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Judging Actions Versus Judging People

dan-dewoskin-new-photoby Daniel DeWoskin
President, DeKalb Bar Association

Long ago, when I was a teenager, I met a man who told me that he struggled to resist the urge to judge people, but instead preferred to judge their actions. I did not realize at that time how profound that simple statement was, how much it meant for me, and how long I would remember him saying it.

This only really became clear to me when I found myself repeating the words to my kids on the way to school. One of my kids remarked about how someone was a jerk. I asked for a deeper explanation about what made this person a jerk and was given several good examples of the way in which a jerk would behave. “He acts like he wins even when he doesn’t. He doesn’t care what the rules are and the other kids just let him play that way. He always calls people names they don’t like.” This does not sound like someone I would like to be around. I had to agree with that.

It is easy to judge an action or behavior. At our most fair about these determinations, we consider the person’s motivations, the circumstances, and perhaps even the explanations.”

However, I took the conversation a little further that day. I asked my kids if they ever did things that other kids may not have liked. I asked if they ever did these sorts of things intentionally, and then if they ever happened accidentally or by some misunderstanding. Of course, we quickly discovered several examples. My kids did not want to admit that they were jerks, nor should they. Suddenly, they began to agree that it was no challenge to identify how mean-spirited, selfish, and arrogant behavior is jerky, for lack of a more fitting term. And yet, they left room for the possibility that all people have their moments when they are just not at their best.

We discussed how sometimes, when people feel bad about themselves, they act like jerks. We talked about how that may have made them feel better about themselves, if it ever did. We talked about how even their friends sometimes acted in a way that disappointed them. We talked about how even their mom would sometimes act in a way that disappointed them. They left me out of it because they did not want to be called jerks. They know me well.

The magic of this lesson I learned so long ago about the difference between judging people and judging their actions is that it only sinks in for awhile, then fades away. This is true even after all these years. When we are in the moment, it seems easier to judge a person as a jerk, a bigot, an idiot, a liar, a thief. For most of us, these moments pass, and we recognize that it is only in the movies where the bad guys know they are the bad guys. It is not just about their conduct, but who they are.

In real life, there are no bad guys. There are just people. There are people who do bad things. There are people who make bad decisions. There are people who respond inappropriately to stressful or extreme circumstances. Again, it is often easy to judge a particular action or behavior. When we are at our most fair about these determinations, we actually consider the person’s motivations, the circumstances, and perhaps even the explanations.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not making any comments about forgiveness and I was not trying to get my kids to overlook the behavior of other kids who fail to do not act sociably or with kindness. One of my many jobs as a parent is to do all within my power to raise thinking children, children who try to stretch beyond their initial impressions about a given subject or situation. The conversation we were having just seemed like an ideal opportunity.

In fairness, I consider myself quite judgmental. I do not hesitate to speak my mind when I think someone has behaved dishonestly or wrongfully. I simply try to remind myself that a person’s character transcends their worst moments. In fact, for many, true character transcends their best moments. It is a culmination of how we behave throughout our days. For those kids that act as jerks might, they have time to change. This is true for many more adults than most of us want to admit, too. The power to change our minds and our patterns of behavior is just one of the magnificent highlights of being human.

Remembering that it is a more enlightened approach to endeavor to judge behaviors and not people is just one of the lessons that I will now get to revisit with my children from time to time. This is one of the magnificent highlights of being a parent. Without a doubt, my children make me a better person because they make me want to be a better person. It should not be too difficult to achieve, as I am rather certain many regard me as quite a jerk.

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