I saw this quote float by on the interwebs not too long ago, and it gave me pause to reflect.
“Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from being with the other.”
On the contrary, I think compassion and judgment are inextricably linked.
Part of the problem, of course, is the postmodern rewriting of the definition of “judgment.” The word has become laden with interpersonal static never found in its dictionary definition. Instead of referring to the exercise of insight and discretion, it has been co-opted to mean a self-aggrandizing attitude of false and undeserved moral superiority. If that were the true definition of the word, then Nouwen’s remark would be valid — it’s pretty hard to stir a dose of compassion into an attitude like that.
But the most compassionate thing anyone can do for another is to exercise insight and discretion.
Yes, it’s possible to verbally bludgeon someone with the brute force of one’s insights, and I have a limited tolerance for that kind of behaviour. But beyond questions of grace in speech, judgment is a grace.
Real grace enters with power and authority, however quietly.
It’s not mere honesty. Honesty can be honestly wrong. And judgment is something different than bluntness. It’s not made more or less authoritative by how it’s spoken, in and of itself, though finding the right approach for differently tuned ears matters very much.
As a grace, judgment must be inextricably bound up with truth.
But Nouwen is fundamentally correct about one of the potential side effects of judgment: It can create distance and distinction between us and its subject.
I should hope so. I do hope that the exercise of insight and discretion fosters distance and distinction between myself and my petty crimes against humanity. I hope it leads me away from those things. I hope it transforms my tendencies, my assumptions and the poor social mechanisms which have at times been my crutches.
It’s my goal that judgment should prevent me from being “with” those things.
The only time it should ever prevent me from being “with” a person is when they cling to wrongdoing at the expense of peaceful relationships: when they choose to go down with the sinking ships of life.
There’s a fly in the ointment there, because it’s extremely hard to find good people. I’d argue that’s because there are none. No one’s perfect. We’re all petty criminals in need of truth, insight, correction…judgment.
Perhaps the best we can do is to exchange insights, and to practice discretion. To make mutual commitments to painful truth.
In that sense, I have been labelled judgmental a couple of times, and folk are welcome to complain. But let’s be clear: it’s not for lack of compassion. It’s because of it.