Wednesday, June 8, 2016


We humans can't help it. We judge. It's ingrained into our deepest selves. We've evolved to make decisions (sometimes life-saving) after a split-second of internal debate: Does this water look safe to drink? Can I get through the intersection before the light turns red? This food truck hot dog looks great, but will I regret eating it five minutes later? Does this person walking behind me in the dark mean me harm? And so on... (yep, I should not have eaten that hot dog...).

We've become so good at judgment, it's sometimes hard to turn off.

I certainly find that true at Common Ground. In fact, sometimes I feel that I am expected to sit in judgment of others. As a donor-dependent organization, we feel a responsibility to use our benevolence funds as wisely, fairly and judiciously as possible. We carefully track client services; we abide by strict rules regarding returning clients; we verify information as thoroughly as possible without invading privacy. We encourage personal responsibility and goal-setting.

And yet, if we let judgment rule the day here, we would miss a lot of the truth. Judgment only opens a window. It doesn't buy us a ticket into someone's true story.

Peter is a good example of when judgment can fail. Peter visited us recently to ask for help with his
rent. Like some of our clients, Peter was neatly dressed and groomed. Some would say he didn't play the part of "person in poverty." Why is he here? He doesn't look like he needs help...

Peter explained that he came to Jefferson City from another state with a good job waiting for him. The company even paid moving expenses. He worked that job for four years making a good salary, but was fired because he did not meet company quotas for performance. He suddenly had no income. (Like half of Americans, he was unable to save enough for an emergency. See the Atlantic article here). He had applied at numerous other businesses since losing the job, but found it difficult to get a job with his qualifications, because a default on his student loans was preventing him from accessing his transcript. He was currently doing the only job he could find -- part-time janitorial work -- but it wasn't enough to pay all the bills.

Peter's story is not unique. We see numerous middle-class individuals and families who hit a snag and suddenly find themselves in trouble. On the outside, they don't look the part. But inside, they are hurting. They are embarrassed to be here. We've also had low-income individuals who don't fit the role description: Coach handbags can be bought at yard sales; nice cars are sometimes hand-me-downs from relatives who want to help; cell phones are provided free of charge to food stamp recipients (because cell phones are a lifeline to jobs...ask one of our clients who lost a job because he didn't have online access to a work schedule).

And, judgment can fool us the other way around. I'll never forget a conversation I had with a gentleman in a homeless shelter during my college days. He looked like a "typical" homeless individual -- bags in tow, unkempt hair and beard, layer upon layer of unwashed clothing. I asked him about his past, and he spoke eloquently about serving in the armed forces during Vietnam and later, teaching English at a university.

We can spend all of our time asking the judgment questions. Does he really need our help? How can she afford that phone? Why is his car even nicer than mine? The questions are easy. The prepackaged answers are even easier.

Listening and a slow discernment of the overall story is much harder and requires compassion. We need to save quick judgment for those important moments when our life is at risk (learn from that last hot dog, girlfriend!).

Simply put, the life of someone else may depend on you turning judgment off until you see the whole play.