We all judge other people, and their decisions, and yet who are we to judge? We only experience our own world and our own emotions, driven by whatever is going on in our lives at the time, compounded by what has gone before. People make mistakes. People get scared. It’s fear that makes us fuck up a lot of the time, that enables those mistakes to be made. I know it, despite not having taken that hypothesis and turned it into a statistically valid study. I know it because I’m scared myself and have been been more so in the past. How can I, for example, judge someone for staying with a partner they’re not that happy with and not sure that they’re really right for, when I felt those same feelings towards an ex of mine for years before I broke up with him? At the time I didn’t know anything other than my life with him; I was horribly depressed, and terrified of leaving, terrified of being alone, terrified of the unknown. The circumstances were slightly unusual, maybe, but it’s not really external factors that have the biggest influence. It’s about inner confidence, strength and the knowledge that everything will be ok in the end, that you will be ok in the end. For various reasons most of us don’t have all of that, and even if we do it might only be in certain aspects and areas of our lives. Taking risks can be very, very difficult. I never used to take any, which meant I didn’t really have a life at all. Recently I’ve taken quite a few, in the shape of changing jobs, ending my relationship, and accepting a place at Uni to do a course that will leave me without a job and financially screwed over (which is a petrifying thought to a control freak like me). It took me a long time to get to that point though, and although the process of therapy helped me – and continues to help me – I had to do it under my own steam. Nobody could do it but me, nobody could give me the impetus, it was a path that I had to go down alone, albeit made a lot easier by a steady stream of cheerleaders on the side lines. If you don’t have those cheerleaders, what then? My friends and family, and my most recent ex, have all been fantastically supportive. When I didn’t have that support during previous times in my life, things felt almost impossible to achieve – like breaking up with the ex I mentioned at the start of this post.
One of the very strong memories that I have from my old job is of being sat around a table, listening to an older woman regale us with a story of how one of her adult sons had completely cut her, her husband and the rest of her family out of his life. She went into great detail about how the decision had affected her, how horrible it was, how selfish he was, how difficult he had made their lives and how much all of them (his parents and his siblings), missed him and his children. We all nodded and sympathetically murmured in agreement. She said that before he had cut them off, he had sent a letter to her and her husband, which she has never read and which is tucked away in a drawer somewhere. She knows where it is. When I asked why she hadn’t read it, she explained that her husband had read it and had been so affected by it, had cried so much, that she didn’t want to read it. That her husband was the most unselfish and amazing man, so her selfish, wayward son had obviously written something very nasty to make him that upset.
Everyone around me agreed. “Well of course he’d write something horrible, look at what he’s done!”, they all pretty much crowed. They all sat back and seemed satisfied that she had done the right thing.
I, on the other hand, was aghast. I tried not to show it, because it was obviously a very upsetting and sensitive subject for her. But there were so many questions I wanted to ask her. Why couldn’t she just bring herself to read the letter? Why did she automatically assume that her son was evil for cutting contact with her and her family? Why did she see her husband as flawless? What if he wasn’t and actually had done something terrible to her son and that is why he wanted to break all contact with his family? What if he had been abused or hurt in some way? I was finding it really difficult to understand why she didn’t just read the letter and make up her own mind. And yeah, I judged her for it.
But you know what? She was scared, and in denial. By not reading the letter she had made the decision to put her husband before her son, choosing instead to ignore the situation, think the worst of her son and continue her life as it was. That he was bad but everything else was fine and unchanged. The letter could have contained nothing bad about her family. It could have been a bile-filled rant that was all made up and came from nowhere…maybe he’d had a breakdown or something. Maybe it made no sense whatsoever. Perhaps her son was just a shitbag. But she will never know, because fear stopped her from asking her husband what it was in the letter that affected him so deeply, stopped her from opening the drawer and reading it, stopped her from knowing the truth, whatever that was. Truth can be powerful and can cause a lot of damage. Seeing things as they really are can cause pain, can wreck lives. This is why denial and repression are our greatest allies, in the short term (I think that long term they cause more harm, like, say, leaving subsidence untreated in comparison to, I don’t know, a tree falling through your window, but others may disagree, and of course I’d agree, because I’m in therapy…). They allow you the safety of believing what you want to believe, living the life closest to the one that you want to live, the one that you are most comfortable living, the life that you see yourself in. They allow you to live your life blinkered, or maybe with those famous rose-tinted glasses. They make it all ok, even if it’s only for a bit. And who, really, can judge someone for that? Everyone’s done it at some point, to a certain extent. Everyone’s doing it. Not everyone has the capacity or courage to say, “Right. Today I am going to decide to confront my demons and fuck up my life in the short term, knowing that it will get better but that for a while, possibly a long while, it will sometimes be shit and I will occasionally hate things and wish that I’d never embarked on this stupid journey”. Not that I have ever uttered words along those lines. Ever. Ahem.
I guess it’s like doing a house renovation by yourself, only on yourself and your life. And you don’t make any money out of it, in fact the opposite; you pay someone to often help you feel a bit rubbish – that’s why every therapist’s room has that ubiquitous, ominous box of tissues. And it takes ages, longer than you thought it would, and of course once you start, you see all the bits that you didn’t notice before that also need repairing, because the fucking floor took so long to fix that it completely escaped your notice that the roof had fallen in. Great.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we all deal with things in different ways. Some of us deal with it by sweeping it under the carpet, some of us bury our heads in the sand, some run away by travelling or taking drugs or changing jobs or moving cities, thinking that it will change everything, make everything better. And there’s no right or wrong way, really, but exploring it is probably a good thing. It’s hard but it really does help you understand yourself better, and you only live once, so why not try and make it the best life you possibly can? You can do up your house how you want, you don’t have to keep the shitty 70s flocked wallpaper that you never really wanted, but that’s always been there, niggling away in the background. It also keeps therapists and tissue manufacturers in business, and, eventually, will probably make you feel a bit better. Well, a lot better. About a thousand boxes of tissues later, though.