Rachel Naomi Remen, MD
The Life in us is diminished by judgment far more frequently than by disease. Our own self-judgement, or the judgment of other people can stifle our life force, its spontaneity and natural expression. Unfortunately, judgment is commonplace. It is as rare to find someone who loves us as we are as it is to find someone who loves themselves whole.
Judgment does not only take the form of criticism. Approval is also a form of judgment. When we approve of people, we sit in judgment of them as surely as when we criticize them. Positive judgment hurts less acutely than criticism, but it is judgment all the same and we are harmed by it in far more subtle ways. To seek approval is to have no resting place, no sanctuary. Like all judgment, approval encourages a constant striving. It makes us uncertain of who we are and of our true value. This is as true of the approval we give ourselves as it is of the approval we offer others. Approval can’t be trusted. It can be withdrawn at any time no matter what our track record has been. It is as nourishing of real growth as cotton candy. Yet many of us spend our lives pursuing it.
Some people spend enormous amounts of time considering the impression that their words and behaviors create, checking how their performance will affect their audience, playing always for approval. Others make a tiny gap between their thoughts and their words which allows them to say only that which they feel will please others. A great deal of energy goes into this process of fixing and editing ourselves. We may have even come to admire in ourselves what is admired, expect what is expected, and value what is valued by others. We have changed ourselves into someone that the people who matter to us can love. Sometimes we no longer know what is true for us, in which direction our own integrity lies.
We surrender our wholeness for a variety of reasons. Among the most compelling are our ideas of what being a good person is all about. Sometimes it is not the approval of other people but the approval of a spiritual school or teacher which dictates which part of us we keep and which we hide. The natural self, a complex living interchange of seemingly opposite characteristics, gets whittled down against some acquired standard of social and spiritual acceptability. Few of us are able to love ourselves as we are. We may even have become ashamed of our wholeness.
Parts of ourselves which we may have hidden all of our lives out of shame are often the source of our healing. We have all been taught that certain of our ways don’t fit into the common viewpoint and values of the society or the family into which we have been born. Every culture, every family has its Shadow, When we’re told that “big boys don’t cry,” and “ladies never disagree with anyone,” we learn to avoid judgment by disowning our feelings and our perspectives. We make ourselves less whole. It is only human to trade wholeness for approval. Yet parts we disown are not lost, they are just forgotten. We can remember our wholeness at any time. In hiding it, we have kept it safe.
One of the most dramatic manifestations of the life force is seen in the plant kingdom. When times are harsh and what is needs to bloom cannot be found, certain plants become spores. These plants dampen down and wall off their life force in order to survive. It is an effective strategy. Spores found in mummies, spores thousands of years old, have unfolded into plants when given the opportunity of nurture.
When no one listens, children form spores. In an environment hostile to their uniqueness, when they are judged, criticized, and reshaped through approval into what is wanted rather than supported and allowed to develop naturally into whom they are, children wall the unloved parts of themselves away. People may become spores young and stay that way throughout most of their lives. But a spore is a survival strategy. Not a way of life. Spores do not grow. They endure. What you needed to do to survive may be a very different from what you need to do to live.
Plant spores are opportunists. The life force waits in them, scanning the environment, looking for the first opportunity to bloom. But people may forget that becoming a spore is only a temporary strategy. Few check the environment as plant spores do, to see if conditions have changed and they can find what they need to bloom and reclaims their wholeness. Many of us still hide the parts of ourselves that were unacceptable to our parents and teachers although our parents are long gone and their world with them. In the world of my childhood, boys never cried. Those that did were sissies. Of course, all girls were supposed to be sissies. The world we live in now offers far greater opportunities for expression, but we may still live in it as if it were the hostile terrain of our childhood. The saddest part is that we may have forgotten what it is like to take the initiative and have a viewpoint.
Reclaiming ourselves usually means coming to recognize and accept that we have in us both sides of everything. We are capable of fear and courage, generosity and selfishness, vulnerability and strength. These things do not cancel each other out, but offer us a full range of power and response to life. Life is as complex as we are. Sometimes our vulnerability is our strength, our fear develops our courage, and our woundedness is the road to our integrity. It is not an either/or world. It is a real world. In calling ourselves “heads” or “tails” we may never own and spend our human currency, the pure gold of which our coin is made.
But judgment may heal over time. One of the blessings of growing older is the discovery that many of the things I once believed to be my shortcomings have turned out in the long run to be my strengths, and other thing of which I was unduly proud have revealed themselves in the end to be among my shortcomings. Things that I have hidden from others for years turn out to be the anchor and enrichment of my middle age. What a blessing it is to outlive your self-judgments and harvest your failures.
From Kitchen Table Wisdom, Riverhead Books, NY