I was talking about someone the other night who, in my (flawed, human) assessment, is not a very good person. He has done a series of very not-nice things that, aside from being irritating at the moment, had the cumulative effect of making one wonder why they hung out with him in the first place. It’s been a while since we haven’t hung out, though, and bringing him into the conversation only to pick over the bones of our disagreements was really just to get that moderate thrill of vindication when someone agreed with your negative judgment. It was gossip, and we can dress it up however we like with claims of needing to “work things out,” or “get clarification,” but nine times out of ten, we are blowing off a little steam at the expense of someone we don’t like (at least at the moment).
At the end of the day, that guy is a dillweed for legitimate reasons, but the world will sort that out in its own time. He has nothing to do with me, and forgetting about him completely is the only sensible action for me to take.
We all do this, though. We all allow ourselves to get caught up in the pain of feeling slighted, in the jealousy of someone’s achievements, in the moral judgments to be made on actions that don’t affect us in the least. Even if I do think that what someone else is doing is wrong, if it’s not hurting anyone, I stand to gain nothing from concerning myself with its implications. If there is a direct action that needs to be addressed, stewing over it won’t do a fraction of the good that addressing it head-on and making yourself understood would. We know this, and yet the satisfaction of judgment is often too alluring to let things stop there. How many of us have accepted an apology only to continue to shoot the same rays of disapproval every time we saw the one-time offender from across the room? We think we have some kind of moral high ground on them, but we are the ones who are stewing in our own juices of disdain.
And I can think of so few examples when I was particularly harsh on someone else’s life choices or actions when I didn’t feel at least a little bit implicated myself. Perhaps they were doing something that I didn’t have the bravery to do myself, or maybe it was a mistake I had already made. In any case, there was always a glimmer of my own weakness I saw in their decisions. I felt almost as though they were an extension of my own life, and as it is rather hard to put yourself in a corner and scold yourself for not doing something right, it was only natural to allow that judgment to come out on someone nearby. It’s a rather selfish instinct, all things considered, given that you are only trying to relieve yourself of some temporary pain when you make them take your moral lashes.
I don’t know if I’ll ever really learn how not to judge. So many people I respect — people who have had many more years to learn the colossal waste of time that waxing pretentious can be — are often caught up in a moment of petty disdain. They, too, allow slights from their social group to become a sore on the inside of their cheek that they just can’t stop tonguing. It seems sometimes an intrinsic part of being a human, a way of making yourself feel temporarily superior when you clearly haven’t earned it. Sure, it factors into their life on fewer and fewer occasions, but they are not immune from the cheap thrill of feeling above the fray when they are really the only one engaging in it.
After I talked about that guy, I felt an immediate wave of guilt. I felt dirty and cheap for having let his name spend so much time in my mouth, even though my friend was agreeing with my judgments. What would normally feel like a moment of hard-wrought vindication had started to feel about as satisfying as playing handball against a set of drapes. No matter how hard I threw, it wasn’t going to come back to me the way I wanted it to. And the only person who really seemed pathetic — whatever details I provided about the object of my derision — was me. Because at the end of the day, only someone who is unhappy inside will spend even a moment of their time dragging someone else along with them. If I think about it, I can’t remember a time I was smiling, laughing, genuinely content, and still saying something petty about someone else. When you’re really fulfilled, you just don’t have the time for it.