This is something I’m trying to change. Call it part of my Zen journey toward being more present and letting go of judgment.
Isn’t it sort of great when you tell yourself you want to change some little thing about yourself, and then an opportunity to put that change in action just lands right in your lap? By “great,” I mean harrowing and painful.
That’s exactly what happened when I had a little essay published several weeks ago. I was so excited, because not only was it for the New York Times (the mother of essay markets), it was also about running—which is one of my favorite things to do! I won’t rehash my running saga, because I’ve taken up a lot of real estate in this newsletter on that already. All you need to know is that several readers made shitty comments.
I get why the Times, and pretty much every single online outlet, is open to reader comments. I just hate it.
You, dear readers, are lovely and self-selected. I invite and appreciate your comments.
The general reading public, on the other hand, is neither lovely nor self-selected. Personally, I would not invite them to the party.
Judgment, Always Judgment
It’s really easy to say: “ignore reader comments,” or “don’t read your Amazon reviews,” until you are the writer in question. I wish I had the discipline and easy-going attitude to do such things.
But I don’t.
The problem with the comments on my piece was that several readers completely misunderstood what the piece was actually about. They focused on a little aspect of it (a “fight” my husband and I had) that was meant to be humorous. Instead, they interpreted it as a serious problem in our relationship, and decided that clearly, I needed some sort of intervention. I think I speak for all married people everywhere when I say that the last thing we want is unsolicited—and frankly, terrible—marriage advice from random people, delivered to us in a public forum that will live in digital archives forever.
For a week, I checked the comments obsessively, yelling down to my husband each time: “Oh my god, there is another one!” He felt bad that I was so frustrated, but kept advising me to ignore them.
“Aren’t you offended? They’re saying sort of awful things about you,” I said.
“Are they true?” he asked.
“Then who cares?”
My husband, who is laissez-faire about nothing in the world, decided to be completely Zen about this.
Over the next few days, I tried to drill down to what my actual problem was with these comments. I realized it wasn’t just their mean-spiritedness; it was the feeling that I had somehow failed to communicate something properly. Not only did I lack a thick skin, apparently my writing wasn’t clear enough for a publication like The New York Times. I write to explain things. If I can’t even explain something so basic as a conversation, should I even be doing this? If so many people were misunderstanding me, doesn’t that reflect on my ability to explain?
I should just stop putting things out in the world! Right now! (I was fun to be around for a few days.)
You have to go to the bad place before you can go to the enlightened place. My bad place is my fear that I’m not explaining well enough. But is that really it? Is that really the bottom layer—for me, or any of us when we are dealing with unsolicited reactions to our work? “I haven’t explained this well enough?” Who the hell cares? It’s actually not about clarity, or the ability to use words. It’s about such a simple thing.
When we don’t understand something, we judge it. The fear isn’t of being misunderstood: it’s of being judged—as stupid, incompetent, silly, delusional, egotistical, untalented, a bad parent, a bad spouse, a bad person . . . the list only goes on.
Every single thing I don’t like about the world ends up winding its way down to the same stupid place: fear of judgment.
The only way to release my own sense of being judged is to release my need to judge other people—perhaps, say, random people who don’t know me and decide to publicly say stupid things to me. I’ve looked it up and down and circled around it, and it really is the only way out of this mess. People will exist in the trajectory of their lives with or without my judgment of them as morons. So what if I just don’t judge? What if I instead extend . . . compassion? Not the backhanded kind, like I hope you stop being an idiot. But real compassion that I actually mean: May you heal. I hope your day gets better. You’re not in this alone.
The Buddhists weren’t kidding when they said it was hard. But I can’t find another way to release my own pain and worry, and be truly present in my work (and my life).
I will always love to explain in words. I will always be long-winded. I will always be sensitive if somebody says something mean to me. But there is a lot I CAN let go—beginning with swapping out my knee-jerk reaction to judge with a new knee-jerk reaction to extend compassion.
If anyone has tried this compassion thing to rid themselves of judgment, I’d really like to hear your tips below!