Dr. David Henderson

Pride and Spiritual Prejudice

Why Compassion, Not Judgment, is the Only Way to Change the World
October 13, 2015
David Henderson

WARNING: This is a long post and I recognize in our current culture, most people want to read a blog that has 3 quick bullet points they can skim. Just understand that to write this particular post in that manner would be to contradict the very point I am trying to make. So, please forgive me in advance for the length and flow. I hope you can read it through in its entirety.

Every one of us has been judged, rightly or wrongly, by another human being. We’ve all been told at some point that we are wrong, that we need to change, that we are headed in the wrong direction. Each of us, too, has gotten frustrated when we do not see the kind of change we had hoped for in others and in ourselves. I have been practicing psychiatry for over ten years now and I have come to realize that the process of change is very complex and difficult. For some, success and failure are measured by whether or not they can get out of bed in the morning, let alone make it to the job or the gym. There are some who know all too well what they should do, but feel trapped by what they are compelled to do. Their spirits are willing. Their bodies are weak. We, as outside observers, might be quick to judge them. We theorize, often incorrectly, that they fail to change because they WILL NOT. They, however, would plead with us to understand that it is not a matter of willingness. They simply CANNOT. In the face of these conflicting interpretations of reality, we are left with a difficult decision:

Do we judge and condemn them? Do we label them? Do we shun them? Do we chalk their situations up to a lack of faith, a moral weakness, a stubbornness of pride? Or do we remain with them in the mystery of their struggle, accept our own insecurities associated with unanswerable questions, and feel to whatever extent is possible the burden of their pain?

The truth is, no one can know the depths of the human heart! We find ourselves deceived by it constantly. To judge is to say, “I know your heart!” When we get past all the rules, laws, boundaries, ultimatums, punishments, and demands in our relationships, we are still left with that “not-knowing.” Did they change out of fear or out of love? Did they stay the same out of fear or out of love? Who can know for sure?

I have found that those who try to find a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, black-and-white answer for the challenges and triumphs of human growth and change do so for their own comfort and security. When they are faced with a situation or person they do not understand, these people have to force their own understanding of reality on that person or situation because they cannot deal with any unknowns. “Accept my truth, my reality, or get away from me. I can’t stand you if you don’t. You threaten my reality.”

I must admit that for a long time, I was that person. If I’m honest, I still struggle against that old man inside of me. We all do. Humans have an inherent need to compartmentalize truth in order to survive. When confronted with another person’s experience, one that may contradict our own reality, we feel the need to pound their square peg into our round hole. We long for a clear cause-and-effect relationship to explain why they are “that way.”

So-and-so relapsed on alcohol or drugs? It must mean he did not work hard enough in his recovery. Jane Doe can’t seem to lose weight? It must mean she is lazy. But when you delve into the human psyche and spirit, these kinds of explanations are much too cheap. If we were to ask why So-and-so didn’t work hard enough or why Jane Doe lacked motivation, suddenly the picture of reality becomes fuzzy. Now we find ourselves playing with a set of psychological rabbit ears that sit atop life’s staticky T.V. screen. We are hoping to find a perfect position of clarity that enables us to make sense of what’s playing out before us. This we do in order to avoid the fracturing of our fragile worldviews, worldviews that make no room for mystery. Herein lies the essence of all pride, prejudice and judgment.

Very few people are capable of change in the face of such pride and spiritual prejudice. I have realized this both professionally and personally. During an extremely dark time in my own life, I had people who spoke truth to me, but in two different ways. The first group demanded that I accept their understanding of the situation and conform to their rules of reality. They left no room or time for my acclamation to their truth, nor did they display any desire to understand my reality, the one in which I felt trapped at the time.

Looking back, I can honestly say I was incapable of seeing or conforming to their truth. The only way I know how to describe that pain is by likening it to a prisoner, chained to a wall, enduring the shouts of angry inquisitors, crying, “FREE YOURSELF!!” all the while writhing to the point of bloodshed against the shackles and shouting back, “DON’T YOU GET IT?! I CAN’T!!!” One man, who at an earlier time in our relationship claimed I was like a second son to him, told me in the midst of my despair, “You made your bed. Now it’s time for you to sleep in it.” He was correct, of course, but his admonition did nothing to help me change. A minister’s wife looked at me straight in the eyes and exclaimed, “You disgust me!” She, too, was correct. I was worthy of her disgust, but there again, her words did nothing to help me, but simply hardened my heart all the more.

Then came salvation: another group of people who spoke truth into my life, but in an entirely different way. It is to these people I am indebted for the changes I’ve experienced in my heart and life over the years. They were and still are the people to whom the more I confess, the more they have said, “I get it, I love you, I am here.” There was no need for judgment or condemnation. They knew I had done enough of that to myself. Instead, they refused to give up on me through my struggles. The difference between the two groups can be summed up in one word: compassion!

Now, understand me: I do not condemn the people in the first group (or at least I try hard not to – I still struggle sometimes like everyone else). I know I have been guilty of inflicting the same judgment and condemnation on others. It is not easy to love others when our own survival depends upon maintaining a rigid, unbending reality that cannot tolerate the mysterious. If you are reading this post and I have been the person who has judged you, perhaps even spoken truth into your life, but without the necessary compassion you needed at the time, PLEASE FORGIVE ME. It just goes to show that we all need compassion, even in our failure to show compassion.

But I would also like to challenge each of us to contemplate: what is that one necessary ingredient in our relationships that must be present in order to lead to lasting change. I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov and there is a quote from the book that sums up the answer to my question perfectly. Though long, it is one of the most succinct and compelling treatises on compassion I have ever read. A man stands trial for murder and his lawyer, asking for leniency from the court, echoes what we all long for in the midst of our failures and misunderstandings:

“I swear that, if you condemn him, you will only make it easier for his conscience, for he will end by cursing the man whose blood was spilled, instead of weeping for him. At the same time, you will destroy the man he could have been, because you will doom him to remain blind and embittered for the rest of his life. On the other hand, wouldn’t you rather punish him sternly and painfully, indeed, inflict upon him the worst punishment imaginable, but a punishment that will save his soul and regenerate him? If so, then smother him with your mercy: Then you will see and hear him flinch and shudder in awe: ‘How am I to endure this mercy? What have I done to deserve so much love? Can I ever become worthy of it?’ Yes, this is what his heart will cry out…And he will bow before your great act of mercy, because he is yearning for an act of love, and his heart will catch fire and he will be saved forever and ever!”

God help me to grow in my compassion for people every day. Amen!

Here is a test of the depths of your compassion for people. On a scale of 1-5, to what extent can you repeat these statements to someone you know who is struggling?

  1. No matter how long it takes, I will always love you.
  2. No matter how long it takes, I will keep seeking to understand your struggle.
  3. No matter how long it takes, I will never lose faith in the process of your transformation.
  4. No matter how long it takes, I will never give up hope that you can see this to the end.