Do I Detect a Whiff of Judgement?
“Are you sure?”
Thich Nhat Hanh
As part of a series on bibliotherapy, in this fifth essay, I will recommend literature for the problem of being judgmental. Limiting myself to British classics, I’m suggesting Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.
I walk our dog twice a day and usually run five times a week, which means a lot of pedestrian time in my neighborhood. This allows me to enjoy the beautiful oak trees, the gorgeous birds, and being judgmental.
For, you see, as I traverse my neighborhood on foot, there are cars who roll through stop signs on the incorrect supposition that no one will be out that early in the morning. There are other pedestrians who do not understand that they should walk facing oncoming traffic, which forces me to cross the street. And there are, worst of all, people who do not have their dog on a leash.
It’s not so much that I enjoy judging all of these people, but there’s a kind of self-righteous pleasure to knowing better and feeling how I would never do any of the above.
Such self-affirming claptrap will rattle around in my head for a short bit until I remind myself that any time I’m feeling self-righteous, it likely means I’m being close-minded and arrogant.
That’s the problem with being judgmental. We are so sure. And, if we’re that sure, we close down and won’t listen. We get things wrong. We don’t recognize that we might be wrong about the very thing or person we are judging.
That brings me to The Moonstone, the first English detective novel, which was published serially in 1868.
It’s rather hard to write about detective fiction without giving away the mystery, so please don’t judge me for being vague.
Collins tells his tale through different characters narrating only what they knew about the mystery of the moonstone. In this way, we can see how the characters’ propensity to judge blinds them to the truth.
Up first is Gabriel Betteredge, the family steward who is as stodgy an Englishman as they come. His love of the family he serves biases him in their favor throughout, and his English nationalism causes him to attribute any odd behavior of one character, Franklin Blake, to his Continental education. When the “nice boy” Betteredge had known in youth arrives after a long absence, Betteredge acknowledges that Mr. Franklin, as he calls him, “baffled me altogether” as not meeting his expectations. And Betteredge admits that relevant evidence sounds incorrect because it doesn’t “at all square with my English ideas.”
This means that Betteredge misunderstands much of what happens around him, becomes judgmental of the wrong people, and fails to uncover the mystery.
He’s not nearly so bad as Miss Clack, a self-righteous character who sees almost everyone around her as “spiritually impoverished” and who is much more interested in passing out sanctimonious religious pamphlets than in showing compassion or kindness.
Note that Collins isn’t making fun of a truly spiritual or compassionate Christian but rather a judgmental, unkind character who invests her energy into such charities as “the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion Society,” run by someone Miss Clack sees as a “Christian Hero” who proves otherwise.
In the meantime, the moralistic Miss Clack eavesdrops and positively revels in learning that a relative is dying as it opens “a career of usefulness” for her that consists of finding the correct religious tracts, a task that makes her ask, “How can I describe the joy” she feels—upon learning of this fatal illness.
Given each narrator’s problem with being judgmental, the mystery eludes them. And while one might expect the first English detective novel to resolve it all with the superior mind of the detective, Collins takes another route. Instead, given the organization of the book with its many narrators, Collins points out that the truth rests in multiple perspectives, in bringing together many strands of the same story.
And there’s the problem of being judgmental: it shuts us down, makes us not listen to all of those strands. Being judgmental is concretizing. We plant our feet down firmly and don’t move. We are so very certain.
I still don’t think that people should do rolling stops at stop signs just because it’s 5:30 am. I still believe that it’s safer to face oncoming traffic when walking or running. And I still know that dogs should be on leashes.
But I can believe all of those things without adding on a layer of self-righteousness that leaves me stuck. After all, the point of all that perambulation is moving forward.