"We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It's one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it's another to think that yours is the only path." ~Paulo Coehlo (Novelist)
I recently saw this quotation from a friend's Facebook profile and it made me think. I don't want to seem overly critical or self-righteous here, but I have some questions about the perspective advocated in this quotation.
Basically: Is this really the deepest truth?
If we meditate on this quotation for a few moments--is this really true?
I don't ask in any mean-spirited fashion, hell-bent on tearing down another's views in order to look more spiritual or elevate myself or whatever. I feel like words get tossed around, especially around things spiritual (for lack of a better word) and I have found it a helpful practice in my own life to really sit and inquire, to feel into a saying and really ask, "Is this right?"
So: Is this right?
I have to admit--I have my doubts.
I feel the view expressed in this quotation, while on the surface appearing tolerant and wise, is actually underneath pervaded by a deep pessimism.
To begin to unpack why I feel that way, I'll start with that last sentence. I understand Coelho to mean that a person does well to accept as true that there is no one single path for all people, in all times, in all places and it's an arrogant perspective to believe otherwise. Even worse than believing that there is only one path is to be totally convinced that one's path is that one and only path and all others are therefore deficient.
I take that last sentence, in other words, to be a critique of religious and spiritual fundamentalism. In that sense, I totally agree. Unspoken (but I think clearly implied) is that "it's another thing to think that yours is the only path" refers to everyone else "it's another thing to think that yours is the only path for everyone else." Again, if that is the implication (and I think it clearly is) then yes, this is wise counsel.
But I wonder about the use of the word 'feel' in that sentence. "It is one thing to feel that you are on the right path..." Given the assumed negative or critical edge to the second half of the statement, I take it Coehlo means that feeling that you are on the right path [for you] is a legitimate enterprise. Ok. But are we only ever to feel we are on the right path? Can we ever know that we are indeed (even if only for us) on the right path? The use of the word 'feel' there softens it, perhaps helpfully perhaps unhelpfully.
Feeling seems to be valued over knowing. The contrast seems rather black and white between feeling (good) and thinking. Thinking seems to be more in the line of judgmentalism (bad).
And that brings us to the first sentence, the one I have the most questions about and problems with:
"We can never judge the lives of others because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation."
What does Coehlo mean by judging the lives of others?
What constitutes the lives of others? Their actions? Their attitudes? Their personal philosophy? Their politics? Their ethics? The quality of their relationships? All of above, none of the above, some other elements entirely?
If we say that the lives of others consist of their actions and the way they relate to other beings (perhaps us), how can we say that we have no right to judge another? At the most basic legal level this is an absurd notion as the entire legal system depends on the notion of people being responsible for their actions and therefore able to be judged for having violated agreed upon social statues—e.g. not stealing someone's possessions or defrauding them or assaulting them.
If we say, on the contrary, the lives of others consist of some deeply private, inner experiences and sense of self (and this is why it cannot be judged), then I worry we are really isolating people and creating a destructive duality between a person's inner world and their outer actions.
So why is it that we can never judge the lives of others?
This last question for me is the most difficult to grasp. I'm not sure I totally understand the thought at all. I'm not sure what link Coehlo's is making between the individual nature of our pain and renunciation and the inadmissibility of judgment by others (because of that unique pain and renunciation).
Think of the kind of self that is being assumed in this point of view. It seems to me quite alone and unable to connect with other beings. To me that's a very despairing view.
Now I do agree that a person can only truly know their own pain and renunciation. For that matter, that same thing likely holds for a person's joy and hopes. At least in a kind of ultimate sense—we can never get completely inside the skin, the personal-ness of another and totally absolutely be them.
On the other hand, is it really right to say we can never (at least to a significant degree) know the pain and renunciation of another? Consider the example of Alcoholics Anonymous. The whole premise (a valid one I believe) of the group is that people who suffer from the same basic disease will be better able to support one another because they in fact know each other's pain. In the case of alcoholism, alcoholics will be able to resonate with each other's sense of the craving, the inability to have one drink and stop there. Many will know the hurt and pain they have caused loved ones.
This idea basically holds for any kind of support group—e.g. parents of children with autism, or people grieving over the loss of a spouse or parent, on and on. Isn't the whole point of such groups the hope that a person can finally find someone who can hear their pain, who knows what it's like, and (hopefully) has come out the other side, learning to deal with that particular trauma in a life giving way? Isn't it precisely knowing each other's pain and renunciation that draws such groups together?
It's healing to be truly heard and embraced by another person who has walked the same road.
I seriously wonder if that type of healing is being dismissed outright by this line:
"We can never judge the lives of others because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation."
Having said that though, for a moment I want to give Coehlo's quotation some due. I'm trying to see the world from (what I take to be) his view, to hold multiple perspectives in mind simultaneously (and I encourage the reader to join me in this exercise).
I thought of this example. At a previous church I used to attend there was an individual whose personality was quite grating. This person talked down to people, talked over others, and was personality-wise quite unpleasant (to put it mildly). I later learned this person had experienced some truly horrendous traumas (a number of them actually).
Knowing that experience of this person's pain--not from the inside of course--did change the way I viewed this person. I didn't know their pain and renunciation and therefore I didn't have that context when judging their actions. I've never had (and hope to God I never have to) deal with the horrible experiences this person has had to face. Unless such horror occurs to me, I will never know from the inside that kind of pain and renunciation.
But again—for those who've gone through similar traumas, would they not know the same (or basically the same) pain and renunciation?
This is an important question because as it turns out in this case there was another person at the church who went through a very similar (almost exactly the same in fact) traumatic experience, a terrible and truly tragic one. Person #1 (the difficult personality) interacted with Person #2 (the second one to go through said tragedy) and Person #1 was not only not helpful to Person #2 but Person #1 actually further traumatized Person #2. Of all the people in the world who should've known how to respond to such a person in such a crisis, one would have thought Person #1 would have been the ideal candidate (having gone through much the same thing). But that sadly was not the case. Doing nothing at all would have been better than what that person did.
In such a situation, is there to be no judgment? Now we might say I'm not in any position to make that judgment, having not gone through that set of experiences (fair enough), but that argument can't hold for Person #2 right?*
Which leads us back to the difficult question of judgment. What is judgment?
Does the idea that we cannot completely know the pain of another keep us forever separated from one another, unable to live in judgment with each other? Can't judgment be loving, merciful, or healing? Judgment can certainly be shameful, destructive, and unjust to be sure. But are all kinds of judgment therefore wrong?
In our postmodern globalized world, judgment is almost always considered a negative thing. People who judge are thought to be cruel, hypocritical, self-righteous, unloving, and (worst of all) intolerant. I think Coehlo's quotation fits basically within that cultural framework. But in other cultures judgment does not carry such an inherently negative connotation.
In that light, I found it instructive to pair Coehlo's statement that we can never judge the lives of others with a famous saying from Jesus:
"Judge not lest you be judged. For the measure by which you judge another will be the measure by which you are measured." --The Gospel of Matthew, Ch. 7, verses 1-2.
On first glance this would seem to mirror and support Coehlo's quotation perfectly.
But this is the same Jesus who also said the following:
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." The Gospel of Matthew, Ch. 23, verse 27
Whatever else we say about that statement, it's clearly judgment. So what gives?
If we look at the full context of that first quotation from Jesus we get the following:
"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye", while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Matthew 7: 1-5)
One reading of that passage is we're always going to be judging each other and the question is how to do it rightly. In that frame, the idea of someone being (altogether) non-judgmental is a nonsensical statement. A non-judgmental person would be (if this other line of thinking holds) someone who has abdicated a fundamental mature human responsibility: namely to judge well rather than to judge poorly (not judging would not be an option in this case).
The wrong way is to judge others for faults which one has oneself. Hence the fact that one should take out the log in one's own eye (a log is huge by the way) rather than the speck in the brother's. Jesus is clearly using hyperbole to make the point. But nevertheless we are supposed to help our brother get the speck out—we are supposed to "see clearly". And notice this is meant to be a helpful way of relating (judging), getting a speck of dust out of someone's eye is helpful to their vision (clearly a metaphor for spiritual seeing as well as perhaps meant literally).
And yet there may be one other way to understand this saying:
Judge not lest you be judged. For the manner in which you measure, will be the manner by which you are measured.
This second (and I think complementary yet distinct) reading might validate a part of Paul Coehlo's quotation (if I'm not reading too much into his statement).
Namely that we are not in the end God and it is not our role to judge the ultimate state or destiny of any soul. This is where people who hold signs up about how others are going to hell for doing such and such (whether it's destroying the earth or being gay) are so wrong. If this is what Coehlo means, then I'm with him after all.But even if that is what he means (and I'm not really sure it is), I think he would do well to specify between this absolute level of judgment (we are not the Ultimate Judge of the Universe) and the relative level of judgment, where yes in fact we are always already going to be judging as well as being judged by others and the question is not really how to be "non-judgmental" but rather how to be deeply welcoming and accepting and also open to deep relationship where we challenge each other, hold each other accountable in love and are in turn held in loving accountable by others. How, in other words, we gain wisdom—that is true judgment.
I think this confusion between the Absolute and relative forms of judgment lies at the heart of the postmodern confusion and reticence towards the subject. It is based, I think, in a deeply sincere intention to include beings. The traditional cultures of the world were (and still are) full of such destructive, de-humanizing judgment. The modern era grew as a revolt against that traditionalism, emphasizing the rights of individuals. The key cultural concept for modernity to really take hold is toleration—the practice of letting other individuals be in different social worlds so long as their freedom does not harm mine (and vice versa). See for example, John Locke's landmark Letter on Toleration. The postmodern world has extended modernity's practice of toleration to previously subjugated populations: e.g. women, the earth, aboriginal peoples, gays and lesbians, etc. So much good and the reduction of so much harm has occurred through this practice of toleration.
And yet....and yet toleration is not able to bring beings into anything other than a superficial form of relationship (i.e. not harming one another, allowing each other space, and being accepting of one another). Toleration—the hallmark of the modern and postmodern worlds—has left us deeply fragmented from one another and unclear within ourselves how best to live our lives. [Into that existential void has swarmed marketing and consumerism.]
While the postmodern tendency to critique judgmentalism is based in a sincere and good intention that beings not have their dignity taken from them, I think it's still (partially) flawed in its outlook.
The post-postmodern insight responds to the postmodern wariness towards judgment in five ways.
1. Judgment is never Absolute. No being stands in Absolute judgment of another.
2. What can (and should be) judged, with compassion, are the attitudes, actions, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, worldviews, opinions, and so on of another. The post-postmodern world does not define a person as simply their actions or beliefs.
3. All judgments are by nature provisional. They are to be understood as means of entering into dialogue and conversation. They are an invitation to grow together and to give the other a space for feedback, counter-criticism, and clarification.
4. The post-postmodern worldview realizes that we are inherently in relationship with one another. We inter-exist and therefore however conventionally necessary and helpful the practice (and legal basis) of toleration might be, it is not true of our human reality. We are intrinsically part of one another. Judgment is a piece (and only one) of the mature realization of living an ethical, political, social life with other beings.
5. The post-postmodern world (in contradistinction to both the modern and postmodern worlds) holds that we can come to know each other deeply from the inside. Of course we are talking about the process of ever-moving into deeper and deeper connection and mutual knowing, but we are not as spiritually, emotionally, physically, and cognitively separate from each other as Paulo Coehlo's quotation suggests.
With these five foundations, a new ethical world beings to open up. One that I sense and experience as requiring a much greater degree of freely chosen responsibility. There is more awareness in this post-postmodern space of judgment and therefore more required of those whose eyes, minds, and hearts are more open.
Contrary to Paulo Coehlo I would say:
We can and must judge the lives of others and leave our own lives open to their judgment in turn. We do (or at least can) know the pain and renunciation of others and they in turn can know ours, until we begin to realize these are different manifestations of the same underlying processes, much greater than any individual person (though including them). If we journey into this other world, we may find at times we no longer even feel we are on the right path (much less knowing we are on it), but find ourselves rather living in a place of hope, reaching out beyond our conditioned knowing and feeling, living in a place of trust in the Creativity that lies at the heart of every moment.
In that space and way of life, we seek out trusted, wise judgment from as many sources as possible. We want our pain and renunciation to be known intimately, so that we may receive guidance as to how to move forward.
* Br. Trevor adds:
Not only that, but a person still has to responsible for their actions, no matter how much trauma they've undgergone. Hurting others and generally disrupting relations is not cool and should be judged. We can have compassion for the person not be harsh or mean in our criticism/judgment, and handle them with care, but I think judgment is completely valid. How else are we to evolve, to achieve new levels of depth and care in our interactions? No judgment means no evolution, no growth, no discernment of better or worse.