The serious problems in life, however, are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seem to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly. This alone preserves us from stultification and petrification. — Carl Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche
An accomplishment of great writers, speakers and comedians is their ability to capture and convey a commonly felt but infrequently commented upon human experience. In doing this, they connect with their audience as they help them feel heard, seen and validated. They also, in the best of cases, spark self-understanding and self-acceptance, and in the very best of cases, spark understanding and acceptance of others.
For an example, many years ago the journalist Joel Stein opened his weekly column in TIME magazine by writing: “I am incredibly judgmental. This is partially because it’s fun, partly because it’s a way to bond with others, and mostly because one of my few faults is not appreciating how difficult it is for others to be as amazing as I am.” Though I’m not proud to admit it, I found this passage extremely relatable (particularly his final reason), and it crosses my mind every few months, because that’s about how often I think “I need to work on not being so judgmental and self-righteous!”
A propensity for judgement and self-superiority appears to be, for me, one of the problems that Carl Jung refers to as “never fully solved.” Like everyone’s personal problems, mine takes on a very specific flavor. I couldn’t care less how others dress, who they love, or whether or not they go to church/clean their house/feed their children organic food. But it drives me crazy when I perceive that others aren’t trying as hard as I am to be “good.”
For people who are familiar with the Enneagram, it will come as no surprise that I am a One, meaning that I have a strong sense of right and wrong. At my best, I am discerning, conscientious and ethical, but at my worst, I can slip into being critical and judgmental. I worry a lot about whether I’m living in a way that promotes the common good, making certain sacrifices to that end and feeling guilty when I don’t make other sacrifices. When I perceive that others aren’t trying as hard as I am to contribute to the common good, I feel angry and contemptuous. In other words, I’m judgmental.
I know that this way-of-being is problematic, and for several years, I tried (like a good One) to stifle my propensity for judgment. It’s fine that so-and-so never has anything nice to say about anyone or anything. It’s fine that such-and-such family throws away half their Thanksgiving turkey every year because they don’t like leftover dark meat. It’s fine when one person or another reneges on their promise to volunteer for a service project once a better opportunity comes up.
But at one point I finally realized that I’ll never actually believe that these things are fine — unkindness and hostility, disregard for the environment and waste, unreliability and self-prioritization — because they aren’t fine. All people matter. Our planet (and the people on it, particularly the most poor and vulnerable people) is dying. All hands are needed on deck. We have got to become more thoughtful, just and socially responsible, individually and collectively.
Of course, this doesn’t make me feeling ill-will towards people who commit these infractions fine, either. To paraphrase the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, I ought to take the plank out of my own eye before I go trying to remove the specks from other peoples’ eyes.
It’s a bit complicated, my problem of judgment. I recognize that I make my own share of unethical choices, but I also understand why I feel judgmental of particular decisions that others make. I know that I’d be better off focusing my energy on fixing my deficiencies than on wishing that other people would fix theirs, and I realize that the hardening judgment does to my heart is no good.
I wish there was a tidy solution to my propensity for judgment (I haven’t found one in the past fifteen years that I’ve been looking) but so long as there isn’t one, it’s helpful for me to keep Carl Jung’s description of our serious problems in mind. They are never fully solved, but we are meant to work at them incessantly. Working at the problem — for me, this could mean examining the things that I judge in others and in myself, wondering how I can live out my ethics in more concrete ways, and considering how I can give the benefit of the doubt to the people I judge — is how we grow.
Reflect: What is one of your “serious problems”? How does it manifest in your life? What are ways that you can be “working at it incessantly”?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.