Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bridges, not Walls

by Susan Weinberg

Have you ever built a wall?  Many of us have, erecting walls  built of judgments, layering on the thick mortar of preconceptions.  Our recent lab discussion was particularly timely.  Many of us are challenged today by how to reach out to others who often seem to live in a different world. Assisting us in that effort, Sarah Routman led an exploration of "judging favorably," an examination of how to  suspend judgment as we explore differences in a way that builds bridges rather than walls.

In small groups we discussed feelings around judgment. We considered the fact that being public and visible exposes us to judgment, a territory that goes with being an artist.  In addition to our fear of judgment from others we are often our harshest judge.

The Critic by Hanan Harchol
We began our exploration with a video titled the Critic from Jewish Food for Thought.  Animated in the style of a graphic novel by Hanan Harchol, this video is a dialogue between Hanan and his mother about relationships and the difficult interactions they often require, offering us the option of really connecting or walling ourselves off.  Our friends at the Covenant Foundation funded this effort as well as a guide that links the discussion to Jewish thought.

If you missed the discussion, you will want to first watch the video.

So what did you think?  In our discussion we identified a number of takeaways...

How we frame something makes a big difference in our response.  Judgment is often embedded in our word choice as we talk of "faults".  In fact a "fault" may just be the flip side of a positive quality carried to an extreme.  Our perspective is colored by whose shoes we are standing in.  Often the flaws we see in other people are the same flaws we struggle with in ourselves. When we focus on what we appreciate in someone else and give them the benefit of the doubt, we allow for the creation of a new understanding together.  Frequently we think of differences as win-lose when in fact it is in our interest to give the benefit of the doubt and seek more information before coming to any conclusion.  By not framing the discussion as adversarial we minimize defensiveness and allow for real dialogue.

In The Critic we noted that Hanan's mother modeled "judging favorably" in her response to her son.  She leads by the power of example, listening, seeking information, clarifying and using her own experience as a teaching point.

Jewish tradition realizes that judging is a natural part of human interactions so it doesn't exhort us not to judge, rather it urges us to give others the benefit of the doubt.  The Pirke Avot 1:6  tells us "make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend/study companion and judge every person positively."  In fact the Talmud speaks of giving the benefit of the doubt as one of the six behaviors that will benefit us not only in this world, but in the world to come.

Jewish thought goes on to say that "one who judges his friend favorably will be judged (by God) favorably."  Psalm 121:5 refers to God as our shadow. So what does that mean?  It was proposed that we create God by our actions. Perhaps our shadow is another way of speaking of karma, meaning that when we do good things it comes back to us. Conversely if we put out harsh judgment we receive bitterness.

Judging favorably requires us to really listent and put ourselves in someone else's shoes. Proverbs 10:19 reminds us that "closing one's lips makes a person wise."

We concluded our discussion with a brief video from Denmark titled All That We Share.  It's message: So often we live in our boxes, interacting with others who think like we do. In fact we actually have much in common with others outside of our box.

The latter part of our session was devoted to laughter. So what does laughter have to do with judging?  Judgment comes from a tight place, laughter from an easy place.  Perhaps to let go of judgment we need to lighten up.  In fact research shows that we cannot physiologically be both angry and laugh at the same time.  Laughter alleviates fear, boredom and anger, those qualities that are so critical to the art of wall building. Sarah specializes in Laughter Yoga (handout- Laughter Yoga) and led us through some exercises geared at activating the physiological response of laughter and joyousness. We clapped and chanted, smiles flowed into laughter, soon our laughter was deeper and wider, we wrinkled our noses as laughter enlarged, laugh lines 'bout our eyes as we reached to the sky.

And so we ended our session with play, and a judgment-free zone concluded our day.  Which leads me to add a recommendation from Sarah, Dr Seuss'  Star-Bellied Sneetches discover, a truth that they quite wisely uncover, that differences really don't at all matter, as they tell us their story in Seussian patter.