Vice and Virtue: Giving up on Judgment

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So here we are, deep into the penitential season of Lent and without much to show for it. Well, some of us, anyway. There are those spiritual giants who are already scaling the heights of holiness, modeling exemplary behavior and giving chocolate, wine, and reality TV a wide berth. I try to avoid these people. They are occasions of sin for me. If I spend any time with them at all, I will have to ferret out their secret faults, their hidden vices. I will have to find indisputable evidence that they’re really just as imperfect as I am.

Lent used to be harder. It also used to be easier. There were lots of draconian rules about fasting and what constituted a full meal and whether chicken broth counted as meat. On Sundays and feast days, penance was suspended and modest celebration allowed. My childhood best friend and I used to count down the minutes until Saturday midnight. At 12:01 a.m., we would tear into the Sara Lee brownies. For 24 hours, forbidden fruit was legal. If you observed the letter of the law, you could arrive at Easter feeling righteous.

Things got hazier in the late 1960s. We began to hear less about penance and more about good works, doing something extra rather than giving something up. It was admirable in theory, but in practice it was easy to let the works slide and the extra dwindle to almost nothing.

Swearing off chardonnay or Hershey bars for 40 days (Sundays and feast days excepted) had a certain old-school clarity about it that I almost miss. But in my experience, those small sacrifices did little to improve my way of being in the world. For that, I needed to strike at the root of discontent, the very source of misery. So this year, I decided to fast from judgment.

I might as well say that I decided to stop breathing. Snap judgments are second nature to me, quick evaluations of everyone from the checkout clerk to the committee chair. Are they better or worse than I am? Smarter, faster, prettier? If they are better, there must be some blemish I can uncover, some flaw they’re concealing, If they are worse, well, poor them.

I read once that it takes at least 30 days to form a new habit or break an old one. Here on day 10, I have to say that the 40-day outlook is bleak. It seems it’s not enough to just stop the judgmental thought in its tracks. You have to substitute a new one. To the guy who just took my parking space, I should say: You must really need this space, because you’re late to class and you’ll miss the test, and half your grade depends on it. About the woman rambling endlessly in a meeting, making no point, wasting valuable time, I should think: You must be lonely. You must need someone to listen. I know how that is. To the person who leaves the closet door open and fails to run the garbage disposal, I should say: No biggie. I know I do things that annoy you, too.

I write this and read it over and think that I am simply not ready to be this good. It feels unnatural, like a complicated yoga pose. Those who know me best might accuse me of being fake, a Lenten imposter who will go right back to her shoddy old ways post-Easter.

And I might. But there is an outside chance that I might also move haltingly, clumsily, into a quiet little stream of compassion. I might actually take the writer’s gift of imagining the lives of others and use it to affirm instead of to diminish. I might finally understand the freedom that fasting brings, and the emptiness it fills.

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