Humility is the solid foundation for all virtues.” — Confucius
Several years ago, I sat in the gallery of a New York courthouse. I watched as two attorneys pelted groups of twelve with questions as a stoic judge looked on, perched from her bench.
It was only the second time I’d set foot in a court of law. I remember marveling at how far television had led me astray from what really happens between those four austere walls.
I was in a three-dimensional world where power suits and pretty prose didn’t always win the day.
Far from it.
Amidst the polished marble and hard oak chairs, the fines and fates of people, real ones, were decided.
I looked on as a dozen potential jurors were wrangled then led into a box, wondering if I’d make it that far. One of the questions we had to answer, and if necessary, elaborate on, was whether we had a criminal record.
For the entire afternoon, I heard echoes of “No,” and “I don’t,” as the judge casually scanned the soul of one nervous juror to the next.
As the day started to wind down, a woman in her late 20s, wearing a fashionable business suit sat anxiously in the jury box. The spotlight that would cast her, however briefly, from ensemble to star grew closer.
She looked like she’d have rather been anywhere else on the planet.
I’d noticed her earlier in the day, impressed by how deliberate she was with her time. While others gossiped, texted, or ambled aimlessly she buried herself in work that looked to be important.
I was just a few years out of drama school, still desperately trying to get my footing in an industry with no set trajectory, or definition of success. I started to envy those conventional lives draped in suits schlepping expensive briefcases, nearly forgetting it was a life I didn’t want. Still, they had places to be, deals to make, and people who depended on them. I envied their significance.
This woman’s got her act together, I remember thinking in admiration.
“Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” asked the judge.
For whatever reason, her inquiry was painted with a heavier hue, the same way the phone might ring differently from someone bearing bad news.
“Yes,” the young woman said.
There was an angst that belied the judge’s poise as the stale air grew thick, the silence in the courtroom somehow deepened.
“Can you explain?” the judge pushed.
“I was arrested for cocaine possession and for fleeing from the police,” she said.
You could hear a pin drop throughout the five boroughs.
For the first time in my life, I had the ability to read someone’s mind. That day, I could read them all.
Everyone in that courtroom, including the judge, was thinking the same thing:
HER?! NO WAY!
As we broke for recess, I saw the same woman cower in a corner, careful not to lift her gaze from the shiny marble floor. Her sunken eyes and slumped shoulders revealed though she’d made great strides she was still haunted by her albatross — the mistakes from her past life.
That moment fundamentally changed the way I viewed people. It wasn’t until I saw that woman sitting so low that I realized how high I’d been perched. Her criminal record didn’t make her any more flawed than me.
While observing her, something remarkable happened — a pure wave of compassion rather than a muddied stream of judgment washed over me.
I only wish I’d had the courage to tell her not to feel ashamed.
In Laurence J. Peter’s famous book, The Peter Principle, he talks about how the first rule of any hierarchy is to maintain it.
Questions are dangerous.
And maybe that very thinking can be traced to our hunter-gatherer days. After all, being exiled from a tribe meant almost certain death.
Today, that fear is manifested in similar ways.
We don’t speak our minds for fear of hurting someone.
We don’t take bold risks for fear of failure.
We judge others for fear of illuminating our own inadequacies.
But when we distance ourselves from those who have made mistakes, we create a chasm within ourselves. Putting a spotlight on the failures, flaws, and frailties of others makes us feel better because we get to veil our own.
It’s not only a cop out but it’s lazy.
The world is a stage cast with players deemed “good” who have done “bad”, “bad” that have done “good,” and many nestled somewhere in between. But regardless of country, creed, or code we have all done, thought, or said something we wish we hadn’t.
We are ALL capable of the ugly.
I had a friend take his own life and once met someone who’d taken someone else’s.
I’ve heard bigotry spewed from the lips of people I admired most, and seen good men be unfaithful to their better halves.
I’ve seen a mentor fall from grace after his misconduct with a child was revealed.
And I’ve been robbed, physically assaulted, and received my share of racial taunts.
But I also know a girl who drove 500 miles in one night to hold her mother’s hand for the last time.
A brother who lent his brother thousands after he’d come upon hard times.
I’ve also seen a man carry an injured climber down the tallest mountain in Africa.
I don’t revere the former or castigate the latter. I also don’t condone the inexcusable, clinging fiercely to the notion we are all accountable for our actions. My point is, the same person is capable of good and not so good.
But when we act like redemption should only be extended to a certain few, we rob ourselves from appreciating the complexity and beauty of the human condition.
Every night before I go to bed, I give myself a little scorecard for the day. I’m not always as thoughtful as I should be when filling out this list, but the last question always sticks out to me.
Did you reserve judgement?
Somedays it’s an easy “9,” on others I dip well below a “5.”
When that happens, I try to dismount from my high horse and double-down on compassion the following day. The best way I’ve learned, is by taking into account my circumstances are not the same for literally half the world.
Once while volunteering in Grand Goave, our group coordinator told us, “Haiti is a country where good people often need to do bad things.”
I work hard to curb my judgment. On some days I succeed, on others, I fail miserably. But in the striving I’ve learned to extend grace to others makes it easier to do it for myself.
And once I’ve cultivated a sense of self-compassion, I can begin to share the same love I’d want someone to offer me.
That I think, is what the world needs now more than ever.