Occasionally I read an article that makes me really excited because it puts an idea or concept so elegantly into words that even if I’ve thought about the topic many times before, I feel like I’ve made a brand new discovery. This happened a couple of days ago when I read Toni Bernhard’s “Why Judging People Makes Us Happy.”
In the article, she explains the distinction between discernment and judgment:
“Discernment means perceiving the way things are, period. Judgment is what we add to discernment when we make a comparison (implicit or explicit) between how things or people are and how we think they ought to be. So, in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.”
When I was younger, I wanted so badly to be nonjudgmental that I often didn’t even allow myself to practice discernment. This had results about as unfortunate as you might expect.
When I started allowing myself to have opinions again, I had no idea what to do with them. Plus I’d been storing them up for quite some time. I felt like I was having judgmental thoughts left and right.
That’s why I like the idea of discernment, the middle ground of seeing the truth of what’s going on around you. Discernment doesn’t require excuse-making (for ourselves or for anybody else). It also doesn’t require us to change anything (or wish anybody would change). What it does allow for is seeing a situation as it is unfolding, for seeing how other people are acting and reacting, and for noticing how what’s going on is affecting our own states, whether that be emotionally or physically.
Discernment gives us data, the data of what actually is as opposed to wishes about what could be. Once we have data, then we can make good decisions for ourselves as to what actions we wish to take and what boundaries we might want to set. Without data, it’s hard to figure out the best way to take care of ourselves.
Let’s say I have a friend, and I notice that every time we’re together, he’s talking in a negative way. At that point I can pay attention to how that’s affecting me: Am I tired after we hang out? Do I feel more negative myself? What emotions am I feeling? Do I brush off the negativity fairly easily or does it linger for the rest of the day?
Maybe it doesn’t affect me very strongly, and I feel compassionate towards my friend because I know he’s having a hard time, in which case I don’t have to do anything at all. Or maybe I’m feeling drained or some other way that I don’t like feeling, and I realize I only want to spend time with my friend when I have a certain amount of energy. Maybe some other stuff is going on in the friendship too, and I decide I need some distance. Or maybe I have a conversation about it with my friend. All of these choices are fine, and they simply depend on the dynamics of that particular friendship.
Discernment and then action move us away from the blame game. Instead of thoughts of “it’s her fault, and why does she have to be that way?”, we move to “what do I need to do to take care of myself?” Taking care of ourselves is something we can act upon, and doing so allows us to have more compassion for those around us.
What do you think? Do you agree with Toni Bernhard’s definition of discernment vs. judgment?