Wednesday, January 28, 2009

judgment or observation?

Recently I find myself wondering about the difference between judgment and observation. Can the two be separated? It is something that I find myself considering both in terms of how I behave and how I respond when someone comments on my personal behavior.

I have a friend who begins many statements with “I’m just making an observation. There is no judgment involved.” Most of the time I feel this to be quite true, however, occasionally it seems to cross over into the judgment category particularly when she declares “I just don’t understand why you do that” without following it up with curiosity as to what might be my motivation. Isn’t that where we often get ourselves into trouble and move toward being judgmental – when we don’t understand the motivations of another and do not bother to even be curious about them?

This morning I watched a woman give another person the finger while driving and I thought to myself, “How rude!” Judgment or observation? The gesture, I believe, was indeed rude. The woman? I have no idea what was her motivation, therefore, I could not judge her character. Perhaps that is the difference, when we make a character assessment rather than an observation about behavior.

I have found myself recently (& not so recently) quite disturbed as I have heard people bash George W. Bush not just for his policies but for his “thin lips, smug smile, big ears…whatever.” While I am not a fan of GWB, I still recognize him as a person and not an Other. Why do we feel the need to make people “less than”? Do we need to assassinate their humanity? Are we not all – uh – human?

One last incident which really bugged me today was when I received a very sad announcement that a sorority sister’s child had recently died of a drug overdose. It is heartbreaking and I wept tears for this child and family I have never even met. The letter gave a few details of the death and in it this young woman was compared to her two siblings who had “always been happy, model children and a joy to their parents.” It left me wondering, had the deceased daughter NOT been a “model” child and “joy” to her parents? Again, I wonder – observation or judgment?

The part of the e-mail, however, that really irked me was when we were asked to pray for the family and also the deceased “if our faith allows.” IF OUR FAITH ALLOWS?!?!? So, here I am going to make a judgment. What kind of “faith” would not allow a person to pray for a tortured young woman’s soul? Yikes! What else can be said? I will proudly stand up for my judgment that leaving anyone out of God’s grace is wrong! (And it takes an awful lot to push me to use the terms "right and wrong"!)

So, what do you think? Is there a difference between judgment and observation? Do you hide your judgments behind words of observation? Or can one be distinguished from the other? I’d love to know what you think and I promise not to judge your response even if my observation is different ☺.


Anonymous said...

Even when only "observing" we are looking through our own eyes and filters. Observation is just one step in the process - judgement is the next step. I suppose the final step would be to condemn or act upon what you've decided, especially without walking a few steps in the other shoes, seeing the other side.

I don't know that we can humanly not judge - using our judgement has kept us alive from caveman forward....this food is safe to eat, that food isn't....this animal will hunt you down, that animal won't....this person means me harm, this one doesn't...even something so seemingly simple as if I put hand to that it will burn me, that will not.

As we have evolved so has our "judgement". I think the question isn't whether we should observe/judge - but what we should do with that information that counts.

Anonymous said...

We need to make judgement calls all the time, as the comment above says, in terms of life situations, etc. What Christ has asked us is that we not judge other people, but to look at ourselves and our own failings instead. Observations are truly part of our human nature, coming to us through sense perceptions, some good, some bad - beautiful sunsets, acts of violence. They come to us because we have our five senses, and I don't think there's any judgement in observation. To me, judgement of a person comes after observation, and I think it involves something we can control - the will. We have the power to leave something as an observation, with a prayer and a smile; we have the power to make an act of the will to refrain from judging.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a difference. Observations move in front of us like clouds in the sky then disappear. We are attached to our judgements just as we attach them to our observations.
But yes of course very difficult to separate them.
As to the wording of your friend's email, I wonder if there might be a different interpretation. Is she actually saying "if you have a faith, please pray" because for those without faith, it certainly wouldn't "allow" prayer. Just an, er, observation.

Country Parson said...

Making moral judgments is a part of life. We cannot get through the day without employing the moral habits of our hearts to judge ourselves and the world about us without even thinking about it. Speaking for myself, I am quite fond of making observations in lieu of judgment, keeping in mind that there is no line between them, fine or otherwise, but only a broad expanse of grey. It's really little more than a form of self-delusion isn't it? At best, observations are judgments that are open to testing and challenge, while the sort of judgments you wrote about are relatively unexamined, snap decisions about the moral virtue of a person or event, or they are moral pronouncements based on ignorance and bigotry.

Dianna Woolley said...

Wow, lots of thoughts you stirred up for me.....I think Tess's response might be closest to mine on the wording of "if your faith allows" probably meant to be taken as "if you have faith." And, oh, the onlookers on a tragic event observing the "love and joy" the perfect children bring versus, etc. Onlookers should wear gags to avoid spilling out that kind of trash - my judgment or observation there, strong emotion intended!

And good 'ol GWB - I just said to my spouse last night while watching a tv correspondent continue to malign GWB - stop it! He's gone, let him have some peace - I guess that was an observation of mine that the tv newsman had gone far enough in his poking fun at GWB's administration and the man himself - get a new tactic to keep listeners engaged.

I do believe that observation comes first and often and faster than we can possibly imagine without our even being able to count the observations that we unconsciously make. The judgment, I suppose, is when we stop those lightning reaction observations and pause with our "expertise" and assessment of the observed. The third trait that you slipped in and one that I believe where my obs, judges, etc. fail at times is in the final blow of character assessment w/o knowing the facts from the observed's point of view. I do work to lower my ability to make quick judgments - but I think most of all I need to work on that final piece - the character assessment.....I must work to keep that impulse in check. Well, thanks, your stirred me up - in a good way I think:)


Sorrow said...

It seems that many folks have offered up some good stuff on the observation/judgement front. So All i will add is that both are tools, and used wisely, they make us better.
On the last note "IF OUR FAITH ALLOWS?!?!?"
having known people whose faith did not allow prayers for those who committed suicide, for those who had fallen outside of the teachings of the church,
There are many paths to God, and some more strident than others. Some offend us, and some frighten us, but is there are wrong way? Again, the judgment, was this note loving? coming from the heart, and not the head? trying to help, and not offend?
We bring to the table, what ever we have with us.
blessings of light and love to you...

Barbara said...

For what it is worth, I have a friend, a lovely and generous and warm Christian lady, whose faith tradition does not permit her to pray for the deceased -- good folk or bad, it makes no difference. When I slip in her presence and mention praying for the dead or (horrors!) even asking for her prayers, I get a lecture. So there are good people, faith-filled people, who do not pray for the dead.

Unknown said...

Amazing post as always, you have brought up many relevant ideas here. How do we judge, how do we seperate ourselves from our motivations, or the motivations of is possible?

I don't have an answer. I try to live my life in awareness that I am a scared, fragile, strong, joyful, sorrowful creature not all at once, but over time and through our journey, and so is everyone else...that helps me to relax into acceptance of others. Acceptance does not mean that I have to like what they say, do, behave, but that they are just who they are...accepting them at the place where they are, and they will move. That is what I will do too...

Great post!

Anonymous said...


Thanks for this post and the wonderful comments from your eloquent and thoughtful readers. Great topic for sure. I have wrestled with this a lot over the years. I'm inclined to agree with Tess' POV.

Thoughts appear... as far as i can tell. No harm with and of itself. And I'm guessing both observations and judgments both qualify as thoughts.

I've heard it said that thoughts are like raindrops...they're not personal. And it's not our thoughts that cause suffering, but our attachment to those thoughts.

For me...observations often cross over into judgment given 2 scenarios. 1) When i'm "observing" with a motive. (And that is usually to make me "right" or someone else "wrong.") And, 2) When I become attached to the observation (or the thought).

No attachment (emotional or otherwise) judgment. You wouldn't argue with a raindrop, would you?

I've found it fun to play with this by raising the stakes and taking it a level deeper. What if we look at ALL thoughts and observations as judgments?

"The sun rises in the East." An observation or a judgment? Of course it's a judgment as the sun does not really rise or set. We can point our fingers overhead and say, "it's a sky." An observation or a judgment?

The fun of this game is that it ups the ante. It puts the fire under me to investigate what I believe and whether or not my beliefs are "true." It helps me escape the prison of the "I know" mind into the mystery, awe, and wonder of the "I don't know" mind. A space opens up inside and joy breaks free. I am loosed from this self-imposed obligation to figure everything out. What an exhausting proposition!

What if see ALL my thoughts as judgments? It opens me to inquiry and softens the painful rigidity of my need to control. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged." Not the Great Judgment of theology, mind you (whatever THAT is.) But rather the limitations of the Instant Karma we create in our craniums moment by moment. It IS gonna knock you right on the head. I get to live with the repercussions of my judgments the minute I make them. Are my judgments serving me? Do they make me feel good inside? If not...does it make sense to rethink them?

My universe expands to infinity without the judgment "it's a sky." Who told me that? Can I imagine a bigger belief than that? I am that liberation. And it dazzles!

Thanks for sharing. As always, your ponderings prove wonderful grist. Happy weekend!



lucy said...

thank each and everyone of you for your thoughtful comments. i have chosen to respond in a new post in your honor. please pop on over to read :-)

with gratitude!

Hope said...

If I was beginning my observations with a statement like your friend, for me, it would be a warning to whoever was listening not to take me to task for judging someone else. I think if we are simply observing and not judging there isn't a need to prepare anyone for what we are going to say.

I judge all the time.
Some of it is the good, necessary kind of judging and much of it is that ego building not good kind of judging.

lucy said...

hope--i definitely hear what you are saying. sometimes it does feel like a reminds me of when someone starts a sentence with "to be perfectly honest" it makes me wonder what they are doing the rest of the time!

Leslie @ said...

Well over a year later, this post still speaks. :) I am in the middle of drilling for the truth and understanding between judging and observing.

Your post helped. Very much. Whether that's a judgment or observation, though, I'm still not clear on. :)

Thanks for your words. You have a new subscriber.

Anonymous said...

Perception is the lens that will skew an observation and turn it into a judgement.

Many societies have been taught there is something wrong with you if you use drugs. Often times by a government who helps supply them. Drug addicts are commonly stereotyped as bad people, and for good reasons. 80% of the drugs bought in the UK are paid for with stolen money, whether it's a hot TV or check fraud or money from granny's purse. I forget the source of that.

I think it's a shame the comparisson between siblings was used in that child's death. That was a judgement, as it has no correlation to the use of drugs or a death, and it wasn't observing the deceased's life in memory. IMHO, that comment should have been kept out.
You don't hear that kind of comment when someone dies from a legal prescription being taken as prescribed, and according to the CDC there are around 180,000 of those a year in America, 4x the number from illicit narcotics.

I have no comment about the prayer portion other than I myself did take a moment myself.