Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Difference Between Judgment and Discernment

I think most people are familiar with the phrase from the Bible "Judge not lest ye be judged." Does that mean if I am going to conduct myself as a "Good Christian" (or just a "good person") I should never make any "judgments" about my experiences or the people with whom I interact? Think about it. This could be taken as a outright condemnation of rational criticism!

Like so many people in this country, I was raised in the Christian tradition and I grew up really trying to practice this idea of "judge not lest ye be judged" and "love as self-sacrifice". Consequently, I never "judged" my mother (in spite of the fact that she kept me locked behind closed doors for most of my childhood and adolescence), and I was "sacrificing self" long before I even had any sense of what my "self" was. This behavior was perpetuated into my college years, where I loved Everyone "unconditionally", even the men who took advantage of my childish naiveté (which, of course, resulted from my being under nearly constant "house arrest" in my early years with very little normal socializing contact with my peers). To put it another way, I was always offering the "oxygen mask" to others in the plane without ever realizing I wasn't wearing an "oxygen mask" myself.

It wasn't until my late 20s, after a very dysfunctional relationship with an employer (one that left me depressed and suicidal) that I had the opportunity to read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. And more than that, I was able to share that experience with a larger group of 15 or 20 other women. The reading took us about a year-and-a-half. Among many other things, that experience taught me the difference between "judgment" and "discernment", and that it was okay, in fact, absolutely necessary for me to develop my capacity for discernment, so that I could learn to deal more effectively with "predators" like my employer, but even more importantly, so that I could learn to deal more effectively with the "judgmental" and potentially self-destructive aspects of my own nature.

So, what is the difference between "judgment" and "discernment"?

First of all, when we "judge" we attach positive or negative value to that which we are "judging". When we judge something positively our hearts "open" and when we judge something negatively our hearts "close." In contrast, one can "discern"; i.e. see reality for what it is, without attaching positive or negative value to it. In this case the heart can stay "open" and fearless, and you can make rational choices about how to respond to what you have observed.

The best example I can offer of this is the following: You see a tiger in the jungle. You understand that it is its nature to eat human-sized animals. You don't have to "hate" the tiger for being the way it is, while, at the same time, you would not try to walk up to the tiger calling out, "Here, Kitty, Kitty!" Instead, your wisest choice is to simply, quietly, remove yourself from the tiger's territory. If the tiger is bent on encroaching aggressively on your territory, then you have the alternative option of capturing it and locking it up. Or, if the tiger actually attacks you, you have every right to defend yourself, even if it means killing the tiger. At no point do you have to "hate" the tiger in order to take these actions to protect yourself. You don't have to "close your heart", you don't have to "judge" the tiger as "evil."

This attitude can be applied to all potential and very real "predators" in our society. This can also be applied to our "internal predators", those voices of self-judgment that may be "attacking" or criticizing us at every turn. As necessary, these internal predators also need to be "put behind bars" so they will no longer be of any threat to our self-esteem.

This is especially important to understand if you are a chronologically mature adult who is starting down a path of personal re-development. The self-judgment we start to pattern as children can be the harshest of all. (See my blog Why all the 'Drama'? for more explanation on this.) Therefore, it is even more important to recognize that just as you must "discern" reality in the external world (and not "close your heart"), you must also learn to "discern" the realities of your "self" and your "internal world" and not "close your heart" to yourself, either.

In conclusion, if there is any "truth" to "Judge not lest ye be judged" it is that when we "close our hearts" for ANY reason, we "hurt" ourselves. When we "judge" others and "close our hearts" to them, they are very likely to respond in kind and "close their hearts" to us. When we "judge" ourselves, when we "close our hearts" to ourselves, we are hurting ourselves. Nevertheless, it is in everyone's best interest to "see reality for what it is with little or no denial" because that is the only way we can use our rational minds to make effective decisions relative to what we observe. Furthermore, it is my belief that this is in part one of the highest callings of mature human beings; i.e. to use the rational minds we have to use in the most effective way possible, in other words to be "discerning", to realize Truth, and to Love open-heartedly.

Yours in Peace...


  1. Lori, your essay is brilliant, right on the mark.

    You have explained how we can protect ourselves with an open heart and no judgement or anger. I do this regularly, but you verbalized it perfectly.

    You've taken my breath away!

    Michael Goldfield
    Wilton, Connecticut

  2. Thank you, Michael. As I am just now really trying to "go public" with my ideas, your words are very encouraging. Thanks again. Lori

  3. I loved this book too Lori and it made a huge impression on me. Your naming of "love as self-sacrifice" is so very true, and is sheer poison dished out to men and women alike. Powerful work and words, appreciating your insights!
    your FDR friend, Mishelle
    I write a blog too if you like:

  4. Hi, Mishelle. Thank you for the feedback. I will take a look at your blog. Keep up the Peace Building! (And I'll see you in the FDR chatroom!) Lori