Monday, April 18, 2016

Every day is Judgment Day

Well it's all right, even if they say you're wrong
Well it's all right, sometimes you've gotta be strong
Well it's all right, as long as you've got somewhere to lay
Well it's all right, every day is Judgment Day
--The Traveling Wilburys, "End of the Line"
Last week there were various oddments of thought floating around my head, including the following:
  • As you can probably tell, a lyrical snippet from the above-referenced song kept popping up.
  • Over the weekend, The Guardian published an extraordinarily perceptive interview of a person whose name you'll probably recognize, who has matured into an intelligent and thoughtful woman with a strong sense of purpose, but who has not been allowed to put her notorious past behind her. Even now, people hear her name and immediately, almost instinctively, judge her based on events that occurred two decades ago.
  • Some celebrities work to develop reputations for being friendly and approachable or, conversely, for being icy and aloof. Sometimes, however, their reputations are based on a fan's single encounter with his or her hero; if a fan happens to meet up with a celebrity on a really bad day, he's going to tell all his friends that Famous So-and-so is an abrasive jerk -- even if it isn't true 98% of the time -- and that snap judgment will do tremendous damage.
Eventually these bits and pieces coalesced into a single intriguing question:
If you had reason to believe you would be eternally judged based on your words, thoughts and actions today, would it change your behavior -- and if so, how?
Although I do couch this question in religious terms, "eternally judged" doesn't have to be parsed solely in a religious context. Let's say, for instance, that Earth is becoming uninhabitable, you're being considered for a coveted spot on an FTL ship prepping for a one-way journey to colonize a beautiful new world, you desperately want to go, and someone's slipped you a note saying you will be secretly monitored for your social fitness one day this week. How do you suppose that's going to change your behavior?

You'd think the sure knowledge that we were being invisibly judged as fit for a big opportunity would encourage us to keep our noses clean. And yet, every day, we are silently judged in small ways by others with whom we come in contact. A healthy mind doesn't give this overmuch thought (that way lies extreme anxiety), but maybe it's also healthy to ask ourselves frankly: "How would I behave toward others today if I knew all my actions were being observed and judged?"

Even in the social media age where, theoretically, any one of our rants and raves could go viral, most of us (myself included) behave as though nobody were paying any attention. This goes a way toward explaining the actions of people who have been publicly shamed for their misbehavior -- most of them probably assumed that no one but their circle of friends would notice or care what they were doing. But we no longer live in a world where that is a safe assumption to make, if indeed we ever did.

Contrary to the stock blatherings of politicians, most people don't do things for evil reasons. Sometimes, as above, they act thoughtlessly and assume no one is paying attention. Sometimes they really believe their actions will change the world for good. Sometimes they just have problems with impulse control, or they want something so badly that it affects their common sense. You don't need to attribute to evil what can successfully be chalked up to garden-variety DUH.

Is it unfair to be eternally judged based on your worst actions? YES. Absolutely. You wouldn't want to go through that yourself, nor would you want those you love to have to endure such shame. So, to extend the original question, what about the people who are being publicly shamed because they acted on their worst impulses, and those actions were subsequently brought to light? Do you really want to judge them once for all as the worst versions of themselves? Or are you willing to make every day Judgment Day, to revise your earlier snap judgment of a person when new evidence comes in? Better yet, are you willing to withhold full judgment of a person's character for a while?

Admittedly, I'm not good at this. I have a bad habit of taking umbrage and then not giving it back. But there are so many ways I've screwed up or failed or just been embarrassingly awkward with other people, and so many times I've wished I could erase the Slate of Past Stupidities and start again, that it would be unthinkable for me not to extend that courtesy to others. I think this was what Jesus was getting at when he said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." This concept is the preface to the Golden Rule: to treat others the way you would want to be treated. As with so many of Jesus' teachings, it is simple, but not easy.

Still working on it, so please be patient. I expect to be working on it for the next 30 years or so, actually, so you might want to withhold judgment until then.

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