Past the Realm of Judgement

Years ago, when I was attending Trinity College in Carmarthen, Wales, I had an interesting conversation over a plate of chips and beans.  A fellow British student asked me quite earnestly if my home looked like the one in the television series Dallas and then he continued to expand on his low opinion of my perceived status as one of those rich Americans.  I nearly choked and it wasn’t because the beans were any less palatable than usual.  My reaction was because my reality was so far from what he envisioned that I was frankly a bit gobsmacked.

And I felt a bit gobsmacked by perceptions and differing realities yet again this morning.

There is a writer and blogger whom I’ve been reading for a bit over a year now.  Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s blog, Ivy League Insecurities, is filled with bits of her life as a mother living in New York City.  And while I have never met Aidan, I feel like I have a pretty good picture of who she is after reading her blog and her book, Life After Yes.  So her post, “Wish Me Luck!” pulled at my heart.  Not so much the actual post, but the commenter who called her “pathetic”.

Here was a woman whose honest reaction to Aidan is to find her pathetic.  We writers and bloggers have to accept negative criticism of our work, words and very selves as soon as we make them public.  As a writer and blogger and mother, I too have been judged and it isn’t always easy to find a way to process that judgement.

We all judge and its role in self-preservation cannot be over-looked as an evolutionary by-product.  The very act of judging is to collect data, make assumptions of that data based on previous experiences, and to react accordingly.  It makes sense to judge an on-coming saber-tooth tiger to be hazardous to one’s health based on previous encounters with saber-tooths.  What worked for our ancestors continues to work even to this day.  Mostly.  But Aidan’s post and then being judged as “pathetic” is a good example of part of the modern equation easily overlooked:  the effect of connotation.  Data collection today and the ensuing judgement is nuanced by people’s emotional reaction to words.  And in this case, I hazard to guess that the commenter who finds Aidan to be pathetic has a powerful reaction to the word “nanny”.

I think this is because when the average lower and middle class American hears the words New York City, nanny, and stay-at-home-mom, the reaction is to think of wealth and privilege and luxury.  A person’s movement upwards through societal and economic classifications does not change the impact of connotative reactions; it merely adds layers to those connotations.

Nannies, from my experiences as a low-to-middle class American citizen, are the helpers of the wealthy.  I hear “nanny” and the black and white uniformed Amelia Bedelia type figure comes to mind, followed quickly by Scarlett Johansson in the Nanny Diaries.  But my non-knee jerking reaction to the word “nanny” is much more complicated and influenced by people I know who have been nannies and people I know who have nannies.  I don’t know what a nanny looks like in Aidan’s reality.  But what I do know, based on my own experiences and by the comments left on Aidan’s blog, the word nanny is much more powerful and potentially divisive of a word than I had previously thought.

Just how does a word divide us so powerfully into those who have and those who have not?  It does it by dredging up our own personal histories.  And the truth is, no one knows exactly how their use of words will affect others.  We may have fairly astute assumptions, but they are not necessarily accurate for everyone.  Additionally, people use words differently.  My British friends regularly describe their dessert as “gorgeous” and “brilliant” while my American counterparts would call the same thing “delicious” or “yummy”.  Obviously, word usage has idiosyncratic reactions  that we cannot easily and universally predict.

In addition, societal norms are geographically and historically influenced.  My mother-in-law reminisced about having someone come in to do the laundry and ironing in her childhood home in Houston, Texas in the 50s and early 60s.  When I raised my eye brows, she said “everybody had help back then.”  Household help in my childhood Northwest in the 70s and 80s was relegated only to the lives of the rich and famous.

But my primary reaction to a woman calling another woman pathetic reminds me of this:  when we struggle, it becomes harder for us to be compassionate.  Aidan is worried about her ability to cope because she knows herself.  And the commenter judged her as an unfit mother because she has a nanny typically help her as a parent.

When we look past our emotional reaction to words, past their quietly powerful impact on our ability to perceive our world and the people who travel alongside ourselves, we are more able to see ourselves and others.

Aidan isn’t pathetic.  And the commenter is not so much as judgmental as she is voicing her own pain.  Yes, we could be more easily sympathetic to her if she had used different words.  Just like that young man who thought I had a life he only dreamt of, so do some mothers perceive others as having an easier time parenting.  In reality, no road is easy to travel.  And every road leaves us reacting in ways more reflective of our personal experiences than our shared ones.

Be kind.  To yourself and to others, for all must find the power to continue walking.

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12 thoughts on “Past the Realm of Judgement

  1. You’re right-on here. We all have a cross to bear- they come in different shapes and sizes, but they all weigh the same on us. Let’s be gentle and generous with each other.

    • They say it takes more muscles to frown than to smile – same holds true with the effort to be compassionate. My “muscles” are often more weak than I’d like to admit.

  2. Loved this, Kristina. I also read and commented on Aidan’s post this morning, and I think you are correct that the commenter held issue with “nanny.” Isn’t it amazing how powerful words can be? (This is why I love being a writer!)

    Constant judging doesn’t help anyone get through their daily struggles. So, why does it continue? I appreciate that even though a negative, judgemental comment sparked this post, you chose not to roast the commenter. In other words, you did not pass judgement. You observed. You shared your thoughts.

    Now, *that’s* helpful.

    • Because Aidan posts so early for me here on the west coast, her blog is often one of the first things I see in the morning. Amazing start to my day today – that moment of confrontation of my own long-held attitudes about wealth and wishing…but quickly followed by the recognition of just how blessed I really am compared to so many. Thank you for reading!

  3. This post fascinated me because you’re right; a simple word like “nanny” has the power to evoke judgment of social status, of the haves and the have-nots.

    “No road is easy to travel.” Everyone has a cross to bear, worries that consume them.

    Nicely done!

    Cyndi

    • We typically think of “charged” words as having power to hurt or affect folks, but then a seemingly innocuous word comes along and reminds us of just how powerful they all can be to someone. Thank you for reading and commenting!!!

  4. This is a great post, and touches on one of my fascinations in life: how the language surrounding religion often serves to alienate. As writers (as humans!) it’s so important that we stay in touch with the constantly changing thing we call language.

    • As someone employed by a church, language’s ability to include and exclude is always on my radar. Very difficult things, these words we use. Thanks for reading Shawn!

  5. I recall having voiced a similar opinion in the staff break room of a corporate defense law office once. That no one really has it much easier than anyone else. That the Lawyers we worked for had it just as hard as we Underlings, only about different stuff. As you may imagine my statement was met with more than a little skepticism.

    This is an extra-fine post, Kristina. Okay, perhaps I think so partially because once again you’ve hit on one of my most oft contemplated issues, the differences between perceptions and reality. Words are one of the main ways we form our perceptions or describe them. So yes, words are the proverbial slippery slope down which we often slide our judgmental asses into that abyss which will, yes, stare back.

    There is so much more I could say on this subject, but it would be mostly redundant, as you’ve done such a fine job of rounding it all up into one corral yourself.(damn, there’s that ole Kansas upbringing again) 😉

  6. That is the core of being a compassionate human being, knowing that no one gets a free ride. I catch myself being envious sometimes and I am getting better at realizing I don’t want their WHOLE life, just some certain element that looks better to me, at the moment. I do get truly nauseated when I read the chain of comments after a blog or newspaper or web article and the conversation turns to attacks on the people commenting (or the author) rather than an intelligent or even emotional reaction to the news or blog itself. Why do people hang out on the computer to spread meanness? Anyway…refraining from judgement can be a nice step on the way to appreciating each other and all we are lucky to enjoy. Thanks, Kristina. BTW, did you read “The Help”? I loved that book and look forward to the movie. Another book I read that helped me embrace some understanding is called “When Good People Have Affairs.” SO easy to judge other people’s relationships.

    • As far as I know, you only have to click the RSS button at the top of the blog. However, I’ll be the first to raise my hand for the “techno-idiot” category. I hope that helps but I’m really of no help. Sorry.

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