The Story Economy Blog

A Tale of Reader Comments and Compassion

why writers writeI don’t like to be misunderstood. No one likes it. But I REALLY don’t like it. After all, my career is about using words to communicate. Isn’t that why writers write? (It is, according to this picture I took in my son’s first grade classroom.) So when a piece of my writing is misunderstood? Oh boy. Let’s just say it doesn’t bring out the best in me.

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!


  • Nina K

    Posted by Nina K on 05/20/15 3:37pm

    Hi Judy,
    Great post! My take on this subject is that compassion is something I must work on over and over, every day. A constant do-over requiring vigilance to overcome our culture's overwhelming attachment to competition and success. It's easy to be compassionate toward those one loves, admires or cares for. Much tougher to focus on those we perceive as being total a-holes!
    Anyway, keep writing. I LOVE how you express yoself!

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 05/20/15 5:11pm

      As always, thank you for your kind words & encouragement, Nina! At one of the yoga classes I go to, the instructor often does a compassion exercise at the end. We start with extending compassion to the people next to us, then to the people in our lives who we love, and then to those people who we don't love so much. You can feel the collective (but silent) "grrrr" in the room as we all try to do it!

  • Beth

    Posted by Beth on 05/20/15 5:00pm

    Well I could say things like, you can't please everyone all of the time, you can only please some of the people some of the time, blah, blah...or I could just give you my opinion after 45+ years on the planet. But it's not very Zen or Buddha like. Here's it goes... Mean people suck and assholes are assholes. Their nasty remarks (especially about your marriage) really have nothing to do with you, your message, or your ability to clearly communicate. Nothing. Those "types" of remarks are rooted in one's personality (unfortunately), perspective on life and/or their current circumstances. And with the Internet, well these not so kind folks have endless opportunity to let EVERYONE know they're unhappy. Next time it happens and it most likely will happen again, go for a run and then let it go. Or you can employ my favorite method, drink red wine. LOTS of red wine. Whatever your approach, just keep writing!

    • Judi Ketteler

      Posted by Judi Ketteler on 05/20/15 5:09pm

      I love you, Beth! :-)

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