Lessons in Non-Judgment

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ commanded us not to judge one another:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.

Every time I try to learn the lesson not to judge, I realize I haven't learned it well enough. Recently, I went to an all-day class offered for free by our local county. It was called "Mental Health First Aid" and is designed to teach people how to help when they encounter those who are suffering from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, schizophrenia, OCD, PTSD and so on.

Obviously, since it is only a one-day class, there are limitations on how much we can learn. Though we are certified after the class as "Mental Health First Aid Responders," this does not mean we are medical professionals. But we can learn to identify those in need and help direct them to professionals if we know how to engage properly. I also went to a subsequent class specifically targeting Suicide Prevention, which went for half a day and taught some of the same techniques.

One of the most important steps in this process is to have a non-judgmental conversation with someone in need about what they are experiencing. And this turned out to be far more difficult than I thought it would be. I've experience anxiety and depression myself. I have friends who are open about their struggles with OCD and schizophrenia. I've had children deal with suicidal ideation and I got them through. I thought this would be a breeze. I would be the star pupil.

I wasn't. Just about everything I said as we practiced role-playing was a giant judgment call. And I couldn't see how not to do it.

If you encountered someone who was self-harming, would you calmly be able to ask them why they were doing it without a hint of panic, blame, anger, or insistence that they stop? Well, I wasn't. Worse than that, it took about an hour for me to see why it was so important not to judge, not to prioritize my value system of not self-harming over someone else's need to find an ally who could truly listen and understand without panicking or threatening if compliance to my idea of appropriate behavior was not promised.

I'm sure this is precisely why the program was designed with significant portions of time spent on practicing dialog. We pretended to be people who were suffering with various different problems: hallucinations, drug addictions, family abuse problems. And we switched off being the responder and the respondee. We practiced some very specific language and it wasn't what came naturally to me.

Are you thinking about suicide?

Have you been self-harming?

Would you like to talk to me about why?

After that, we were directed to offer encouraging short phrases like, "I see," and "Tell me more." We were specifically directed NOT to say that we had experienced the same thing, or something similar and to talk about what had happened to us. This wasn't a chance to share. It was a chance to listen, and it turns out listening skills aren't something that I had learned as well as I thought I had.

While these skills are meant to be used for anyone, religious or not, I couldn't help but think about how difficult it is for me to turn off judgment. My assumptions that my world view is the right one keep getting in the way of me helping others and understanding them. I expect them to conform to my ideas of "right" and "wrong," in just about every situation. And Christ's warnings that I need to stop this or that I will be judged with the same measure are sobering.

Of course, I judge myself in this way, and by learning to turn off my judgment of others, I am also learning to stop judging myself. This matters because judgment gets in the way of seeing myself clearly. It gets in the way of loving myself and others. It prevents me from listening truly and hearing truth from other sources. It means I'm so busy putting people in boxes that conform to my categories of the world that I miss the part where I am taught important lessons. I'm so busy talking about what's right and wrong in my own mind that I can't sit and listen to the pain others feel and therefore cannot help them.

If I can't listen and learn from others, I am trapped in a very small box of my own life experience. If I can't see another point of view, how can I learn to really love outside of myself? Christ's teachings are transformative in showing me the way to a better way of being, knowing, and loving. If only I had been able to listen better to Him, maybe I wouldn't have needed to be retaught over so many hours.

Then again, judging myself in the past is useless. It's time to move on, to do better, to open myself up to new ways to show love and compassion, and to be ready to be shown again and again how I'm getting it wrong, and turning back to Christ to become a better mother, wife, sister, friend, neighbor, and Christian.