My friend Gracie went to court again a few weeks ago.
She’s not in any trouble—Gracie is one of the most law-abiding people I know—but her son is. He’s 18 and has been sporadically in trouble with the law for at least the last four years, mostly for stupidity. He’s sold marijuana. He’s passed on photographs to other kids that he shouldn’t have. That sort of thing. And every time it happens, Gracie is in despair and does what she can to get him out of the trouble he’s in.
I raised two stepchildren myself, so I know a little about parenting, and the truth is, I saw this coming. She never put limits on this kid—or, when she did, she didn’t enforce them. She didn’t insist on good manners at meals (a source of ongoing strife for years between me and my stepkids!), or on making and keeping eye contact when in a conversation, or on having chores around the house. I’ve watched all this over the years and so now that Simon’s in trouble, I’m the last one to be surprised. No wonder he does exactly what he wants and expects his mother to help him out of his problematic situations.
And of course what I want to do is say, “I told you so.” What I want to do is say, “Let him deal with the consequences of his actions for once.” It’s a struggle to listen sympathetically to her tales of woe and not say any of those things.
Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation. Maybe someone in your family, or among your friends, is doing something you know to be ineffective, or even wrong. I don’t think it’s all that uncommon; people do all sorts of things we might never dream of doing.
I finally took my frustrations to the Lord. I finally sat in an empty church and poured out everything I thought about Gracie’s parenting skills and asked, “What should I do?”
I sat there in silence for a very long time, with my own words echoing in my head. I think she should have… I would have done things differently… I don’t agree with what she said… And that was when it really hit me. I… I… I… When did this all become about me? Whose life was it? Whose son was it? In truth, the situation with Simon had nothing to do with me. Yet I felt comfortable sitting there and thinking only about all the things Gracie’s done wrong… according to me.
A phrase from St. Matthew’s gospel came into my head: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.” Here I was, feeling all smug and superior because in this situation I thought I could have done better. What about all the other situations in my life? What about the mistakes I’ve made, the kindnesses left undone, the words spoken in anger?
And then a flood of other verses came into my head. Let the one without sin cast the first stone… Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?... There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor?
We like to think about the things we’re good at, and not about the things we aren’t. So when someone isn’t good at the same thing we’re good at, it’s tempting to dwell on their faults so we can feel all superior.
The truth is, everyone is broken in some way; it’s in our nature, ever since the Fall. Our saving grace is that we’re all broken in different ways, so we can lean on each other, help each other. It’s certainly not so we can judge each other.
The Saving Grace of Our Brokenness
What good would it do Gracie for me to tell her Simon’s behavior is at least partially down to her? Would it bring us closer? Would it help her navigate the present situation? Of course not. It would make her feel worse, even as it helped me feel superior. And as much as I told myself I wanted to help Gracie, that was the real reason: in this one area, I could feel superior.
And as I sat in that church I also had some other memories… Gracie patiently listening to me over days and weeks and even months when I went through my divorce. Gracie grabbing me from my work and making me walk with her in the woods because a certain day was too perfect to waste. Gracie and her husband sharing their Thanksgiving meals with me when I felt lost and alone.
She didn’t judge. She was just there. And now here I was, petty and small, trying to figure out how I could let her know she’d messed up?
I left that church feeling humbled and more than a little ashamed. I went straight to the florist’s and sent Gracie some bright riotous flowers, with a card that said, “To cheer you up as you go through this difficult time. I love you always, Jeannette.”
Because that’s what matters. In the gospel of St. John, we read, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
“Judge not,” and “have love for one another.” It doesn't come naturally to us, but it is our calling.