….I know we’re not supposed to judge, but isn't it very hard to keep from judging other people? I can't stop my mind from thinking. But isn't that normal? If I had no thoughts or judgments at all, would I still be human? I envy my dog sometimes. He doesn’t care what anyone is like, so long as they are fairly nice to him. His first reaction is always to wag his tail. With one exception. There’s a neighbour that Bailey doesn’t like, and I don’t like her one bit either, and I notice that he never wags his tail at her. So maybe I'm right about her. He senses something about her and keeps his tail to himself. We seem to have the same opinion of her. But I judge an awful lot of people, and I think negative stuff about them. I don’t feel right about it. If I was half as tolerant as Bailey I'd be happy. Do you think it’s possible? Have you any suggestions? Helen
Let me guess: Bailey is a golden Labrador. If so, what a perfect name for him! – he would be the same colour as Baileys Irish Cream.
Your letter rang a bell for me, and I went searching for something that I half remember reading years ago. I found it! You are not the first person in history to envy their dog. A Desert Father – a monk – of the 4th century, Abba Xanthios, said, "A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge." I'm happy to put you in touch with a like-minded person who lived 1700 years ago.
But here’s a thought about Bailey. Is it possible that he is taking his cue from you, and not from your neighbour? He is under your spell, not hers. Dogs, and many other animals, can read our feelings much better than we can read one another’s. Konrad Lorenz gave many examples of this in a great book called King Solomon’s Ring. I've given away many copies of it. If what he said is true of Bailey, I'm afraid your dog is imitating you rather than agreeing with you.
This means, Helen, that you are on your own, I'm afraid! But no, I'm wrong, we are all with you, we human beings who are less tolerant than dogs are. I love dogs, and it puzzles me that we use the expression ‘fighting like dogs’ to describe the worst kinds of human behaviour. In fact if we could fight like dogs, the world would be a far more peaceful place than it is. Most of the fighting that dogs do isn't really fighting; it’s just growling and posturing and pretending to attack. And when two dogs are actually fighting, and one of them submits, exposing his throat (his most vulnerable part), the other dog, standing over him, snarling and with teeth bared, capable of killing him with one bite, is nevertheless incapable of doing so. The exceptions to this are dogs that have been trained by humans to kill. Wish we fought like dogs! And what a pity that some dogs have learnt to fight like us.
Yes, we have a problem. We use language, which gives the impression of great clarity, because it gives us ready-made categories: ‘good’ and ‘bad’, for example – and all the other pairs of opposites that we bet our life on. It is much clearer than reality. In reality no one is entirely good or entirely bad; we are all a mixture. But just because the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are on different pages of the dictionary, we think that good people and bad people must be quite distinct as well. Speech is a great gift, but it has in-built problems, and this is the main one. We have to keep reminding ourselves that our ready-made categories can be a form of violence against reality. Look up the ancient Greek story about Procrustes. He was a blacksmith who had a special bed for guests. If a guest was short, he stretched him to fit the bed; and if he was too tall, he chopped off the feet. Hospitality can go too far.
We are this most dangerous animal, trained to overlook reality and to follow instead a blind programme that cares little about it. When we make judgments about other people, our judgments are likely to be more about ourselves than about them. Here’s what another old-timer said, Jelaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273):
What the sayer of praise is really praising
Is himself, by saying implicitly,
'My eyes are clear.'
Likewise, someone who criticises is criticising
himself, saying implicitly, 'I can't see very well
with my eyes so inflamed.'
Jesus said something similar: “‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2). This might look as if Jesus is saying that God is just as mean-minded as we are; but the subtlety of it is that it is we who are judging ourselves. A narrow judgment on my part makes my world a narrow place. I have made myself narrow; I am limiting nothing but myself, measuring nothing but myself; it is always myself that I am judging.
How do we make our world a broader and more generous place? By giving up this habit of judging other people. Our ego thrives on judging others, because it is not our real identity, and consequently it is always being ‘pushy’, it is always in subtle competition with others. When we become more aware of our own ego and how it works, we cut the main root of our negative judging. Here’s what another ancient writer said about this (you are probably wondering if I have any living friends). This one lived in the fourth century BC! He is known as Chuang Tzu, or Zhuang Zhou.
If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.
Only if my boat is empty can I be one with anything or anyone. Bailey’s boat is empty; that's why he wags his tail so much. Life is simpler for dogs; they are not burdened with knowledge, as we are. We have what has been called “the wound of knowledge.” Our capacity for reflection opens the door to just about everything, even the most terrible things. That's why it is described as a wound. Yet we shouldn’t envy animals their simple lives. The wound of knowledge opens us not only to a world of pain, but also to knowledge of everything, even of God. We are all like seriously wounded geniuses; we have to see ourselves and all our suffering fellow human beings as deeply wounded and vulnerable. It’s no wonder God has pity on us.
Do you have to pretend that it’s a pleasure to meet that neighbour? No, not at all; it is whatever it is. But “do not judge, and you will not be judged.” Your judgments of her may be factually true: that’s the bait on the trap. But it is not the whole truth: that’s the trap. All our judgments are incomplete. We don’t know the full truth about anyone. And we hardly begin to understand the mercy of God.
All the best, Helen. Give Bailey a pat for me.