Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Two people of the same age, both in fairly good health, fall and hit their knee on concrete pavement. One of them is able to walk again soon after. The other can’t even stand.
The one who’s walking turns around and says, “If I can walk, so can you. You just don’t want to.”
Now, it’s possible that the person who can’t stand really is exaggerating the severity of the injury. Sometimes people fake pain or play it up in a manipulative way.
But there are other possibilities. Maybe the two people didn’t strike their knee with the same amount of force. Maybe they each struck a different part of the knee. Another point to consider is that through some combination of genetics and lifestyle habits, they each have their own strengths and vulnerabilities in response to different kinds of injuries. It’s also possible that the person who currently can’t stand already suffered damage to the knee — from an assault with a tire iron, for instance, several months earlier.
If you just took in the situation at a glance, you wouldn’t be able to know.
However, people who take in the situation at a glance often think they know everything.
As someone who observes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m considering this tendency as part of a more general reflection on my behavior. Although reflection and sincere repentance is possible throughout the year, the High Holidays place special emphasis on the need to behave with humility, make amends for how we’ve wronged other people, and determine how to change.
There are prayers that contain passages on how nothing is hidden from God. No secrets, no half-formed thoughts. In contrast, we don’t have this knowledge. We can’t know people’s innermost intentions, all the chains of cause and effect in their lives and all the factors shaping their personal circumstances. We’re unable to see this big picture. Our judgments arise from incomplete information and thought processes that skew towards our biases.
Obviously, we still need to form judgments. It’s necessary in many contexts — deciding on innocence or guilt in court, evaluating insurance claims, assessing job candidates, attempting to understand the behavior of someone close to us.
The key is to strengthen humility in judgment. Humility opens up space for self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and doubt. You make a judgment whenever necessary, while remaining conscious of the fact that you may have erred or acted on incomplete knowledge. You acknowledge the possibility that you’ll need to revise your judgment in the future.
Forming a judgment with humility isn’t the same thing as assuming a non-judgmental pose or deciding that you aren’t capable of judging at all. Rather than kill your ability to judge, humility refines it. You’re less apt to rely on snap judgments and more likely to assess a situation thoughtfully, with a better sense of your limitations.
This isn’t easy. Humility is an admission that you’re living with uncertainty. It reminds you of the limits of your knowledge and powers of thought.
Uncertainty is difficult to live with. It makes people afraid and angry. An easy way to deal with it is to indulge in over-simplification. We can reduce people entirely to biological urges or to boxes checked off on a form. Without thinking, we can immediately pour contempt and ridicule on them, just to feel better about ourselves or to make our own behavior look good in comparison. Other people become props, animals, or caricatures, whatever we need them to be. All-or-nothing thinking intensifies in our mind; the people we judge are either angels or demons, all-good or all-bad. Or we give up and decide that all flawed or immoral actions are the same (a flaw is a flaw, one crime no different than another).
On Yom Kippur, I’m at the synagogue for basically the whole day. It’s a solemn day, but there’s a joyful atmosphere at the synagogue. Even as people are fasting, they’re singing, praying, smiling at each other, and wishing each other a good year.
Their frailty is more evident than on other days. They lean on the backs of the chairs in front of them to take some weight off their feet. They might head home for a nap or fall asleep in their seats or on a bench. Some of them complain about coffee withdrawal headaches or stare wistfully at the food the young kids bring in to eat. In the air, there’s sometimes a faint backwash of morning breath.
I often feel tender towards them. Many are strangers. Some I know, even though I can only guess at their thoughts. They’re bowed over prayer books, with who knows what in mind — the text itself, their hopes, their thoughts about what they want to change, their private countdown to the food that’s coming in a few hours. Whatever they’re thinking, they’re a blend of simple and mysterious, straightforward and complex, and I feel at peace with them. Uncertainty becomes easier to live with.
That sense of peace tends to get muted in the days after, as the work of the week picks up again. But I hope to preserve its steadying influence. I want to live more easily with uncertainty and to make judgments with greater consideration and humility. Making more space in the mind for due reflection and possible revision is critical.