"Fighting for what you believe is worth it, even if you might not win." - Ed Koch, former New York Mayor
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I've long maintained the position that remaining open-minded and not judging others was the best route to take in life. I've avoided forming opinions out of fear that doing so would cut me off from seeing other perspectives and therefore prevent me from gaining a new understanding of something that was otherwise alien to me. But as I've gotten older I've found that a lack of opinions greatly limits my personal growth.
If someone asked me for my thoughts on a big topic--God, religion, politics, money, sexuality, ethics--my response was always watered down so that I didn't have to take a firm stance in any direction. I might say that I feel one way or another, but I would always end it by saying that I'm still exploring and that I choose to remain open-minded.
That's not to say that I don't have a strong sense of personal ethics and moral values. I've always felt a strong sense of right and wrong, but I've never explored the why of those feelings. So when I'm presented with a situation that requires using my sense of right and wrong to judge someone else's actions, I've always taken the stance of not judging at all. Instead of deciding that someone's actions are right or wrong, I choose to tell myself that I don't fully understand where that person is coming from and therefore I cannot rightly judge their actions.
However, I'm beginning to see that I do this not to protect the other person but to protect myself. I do it because I'm afraid of what others might conclude those judgements mean about me. I'm afraid of being defined, of being put in a box and labeled as 'person who believes X'.
But the older I get the more I realize this is not only wrong but dangerously influential to those who may be watching my example. Our life is a walking billboard and the examples that we set are the messages that are broadcasted to the world. Our ethics define who we are. Choosing not to take a stance on a particular subject is taking a stance in itself, a stance that says it's OK not take a stance, that it's OK to let things slip by simply because you've chosen not to decide.
All of these thoughts on judgement and ethics came about after reading the following bit from a post written by Shawn Coyne on Steven Pressfield's blog.
The other day I overhead this conversation:
Man #1: “I ran into Frank Smith (not his real name) at the beach yesterday…”
Man #2: “Isn’t that the guy who cheated on his wife, got a DWI, and said all of those nasty things about Jill’s daughter in law?”
Man #1: “…Well…yes…but I try not to judge.”
I run into this “I don’t judge” stuff a lot and it infuriates me on many levels. But as this is a blog about what it takes to create art, I’ll just address why this “moral position” is at best hypocritical and at worst a force as undermining and dark as Resistance.
If you want to create art, you need to make judgments about human behavior and take a side. How well you convey and support your point of view is a measure of your skill.
If you don’t call people on their shit, you’re placing yourself above them, as if their actions are so inconsequential to you that they need not be considered. You’re above it all, some kind of Ayn Randian ubermensch behaving only out of self-interest. The same goes for not giving a standing ovation for great work because others remain seated. If you admire a work, let the artist know. They can use all the attaboys they can get. It’s Hell in that studio.
Despite the initially convincing argument that to “not judge” is an expression of empathy—who knows, if I faced those same circumstances maybe I’d do something like that too? —It’s not. It’s an excuse for not standing up for what’s right.
Not saying something is uncaring. Not saying something means that you do not want to put your ass on the line and take the risk that you’ll be shunned for your opinion. It has everything to do with you. Nothing to do with the other person.
I’m aware that the world is not black and white. There are shades of gray between the two poles of every value. On the spectrum of “Truth and Deceit,” telling a white lie when your cousin asks if she looks good in her bathing suit is not the same as running a billion dollar Ponzi scheme. I get it.
And yes, most of the time, keeping our big mouths shut is the right thing to do. We’re all guilty of misdemeanors and don’t need Earnest Ernies pointing out our shortcomings. And when we do confront someone about their actions, we need to do it with tact and care. That’s empathy.
But this “non-judgment, I tow the middle line” attitude is dangerous. There is no middle line. Not judging is a judgment. And it pushes people away from each other—I best not make a mistake and judge anyone or no one will like me…best to keep quiet and be agreeable—instead of bringing them together—I thought I was the only one who thought Animal House was genius…
The man I overheard who doesn’t “judge” the adulterous, alcoholic driving, rumormonger sends a message to the world that destructive actions are excusable. It is what it is… There is no right and wrong. Nonsense.
But it is his passive aggressive dressing down of the other guy for “judging” someone guilty of antisocial behavior that is even worse. It masks his cowardice as virtue. And to not judge whether something is right or wrong is the furthest thing from a virtue.
You must choose a position in this world on innumerable moral questions and stand by your judgments. Woody Allen made this point in six lines of dialogue. Ken Kesey riffed on it for an entire novel. It’s important.
If you are an aspiring artist and you wish to avoid “judgments,” you’ll find that you have nothing to say.
So even if it means risking shutting yourself off to other possibilities, choosing a position on moral questions is important. It's important because the alternative--not choosing a position--means that you're setting an example even worse than choosing the wrong position.
By not choosing to make moral judgements you're setting an example that says it's OK to not stand for what you believe, that it's OK to not believe in anything. It's not OK. As human beings we grow and evolve through what we believe, not through what we don't believe.
Equally as important to being human is the formation of new opinions and ideas, that process of discovering, learning, and then accepting that previously held beliefs may have have been wrong. But if you don't take a stand in the first place, how can you prove yourself wrong?
Congruency is compatibility, agreement, and harmony. If we're living in congruence with ourselves, then our actions are in harmony with our beliefs. Things we want to see in others, we consciously strive to exude from ourselves. Our actions reflect a commitment to our values.
If we’re not living in congruence with ourselves, then we will say one thing but do another. We will seek things in others that we ourselves fail to strive for.
I’m always looking for ways in which my actions are not congruent with my beliefs. I ask myself, am I acting the same way I would want others to act? Am I making choices that I would want others to make?
I recently realized that my Journal offering — a $7/month subscription — was not in alignment with what I look for in other subscriptions, nor was it compatible with the way that I make monetary contributions to others.
Recognizing this, I’ve made a few changes to the Journal that are going into effect as of today.
There are now monthly and yearly subscription options, along with a one-time donation page. If you make a one-time donation of at least $7, you automatically receive access to the Journal; the duration of access is determined by the amount of your donation.
For the monthly and yearly subscriptions, the minimums are $7 and $40 respectively, but those amounts can be adjusted as long as they remain above the minimums.
Of course you can choose to do nothing and keep your current monthly subscription. However, you now have the option to switch to the yearly subscription, or cancel your recurring subscription and make a one-time donation. Whatever you decide, I’m very grateful for your support. 🙂
So far this year I’ve made monetary contributions to [person requested name be removed], Joy Holland, Sui Solitare, Lynn Fang, Niall Doherty, Thom Chambers, Ando Perez, and Earl Baron, along with several other donations to small independent software developers.
In each case, I might not have made the contribution if I wasn’t able to choose the amount of my subscription or if I wasn’t able to make a one-time contribution.
The freedom to choose, I realized, is quite important to me. I also realized that despite its importance in my life, I wasn’t holding myself to the same standard.
The options for subscribing to my Journal have been, until now, quite limited: you could subscribe for $7/month or not at all. Even the donation button was removed from my site in early 2011.
However, with these new options in place my offering now feels congruent with the rest of my life; I’m now presenting things in way that I would want to see if I visited a site and felt the desire to make a monetary contribution.
Do you have any thoughts on living in congruence with yourself, or on the power of choice? Is there anything in particular that you wish you saw more of, whether from me or from others that you follow?
We're all filters now, constantly presented with the task of deciding to read something or ignore it, to share a thought with the world on Twitter or let it go unheard. For creators this challenge of filtering can become overwhelming. Satya Colombo writes about a recent experience with this:
So, here's the dilemma: do I share what compels me, what sparks this very intimate recognition within me, pulls a small heart string... Or do I share the thing I think other people might resonate with? The thing I think might actually be more compelling?
In this case, I decided to just shelf it, and do nothing. [...]
The point is — how to decide what to create, and what to share, and what voices to listen to in deciding…?!
Sometimes you just know — that thing you just did is Fricken good. It's ready to fly. But more often than not, there's this gray area…
A lot of people get stuck in that gray area. Especially when trying something new, or finally listening to those voices and actually pursuing a soul calling. Everyone has an opinion, or an idea of how to do it based on what they've seen and done, and unless they're really amazingly brilliant and/or they know you really well, their opinion is absolute crap when it comes to you. Totally useless. Please don't listen to them.
There's a lot of voices you can choose to listen to, but then there's one really awesome one that rules them all, and it's the language of the universe when it comes through your spirit.
Some people hear it speaking through a tree they're sitting next to, or the wind rustling overhead. Sometimes it comes through on the smile of a child, or a flash in the eye of the checkout bagging girl. You recognize it when you're really open to it — when you're connected to yourself, and actively surrendering to the marvelous creative pull of your work. Whatever and whenever that might be.
As creators, we're constantly presented with the task of figuring out if we should create that which our audience will most likely understand and appreciate or if we should create what feels real, authentic, and true to ourselves. I believe a balance between the two can and should be found, but often that requires a very deep and thorough understanding of both sides: an understanding of ourselves and of those who are listening.
When in doubt, my philosophy is to do without. If I'm not sure about something, I hold back and create and share nothing. While this is certainly a safe route, I think it's also a fear-based route. Playing it safe is easier than making a mistake or creating something that is misunderstood, but it's also a sure way to mediocrity. It's far better to risk making mistakes and asking for forgiveness than to play it safe and remain quietly invisible to the world.
This article in the Wall Street Journal was adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.
Although the concepts are a bit difficult to follow at times, they're incredibly insightful, especially the whole point about how much our perspective influences the way we see the world around us.
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
If you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line -- maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.
Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -- it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important -- if you want to operate on your default-setting -- then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.