Judgment hurts. This is a lesson I’ve been reminded of in multiple ways recently. In any relationship, the kind and loving thing to do is to meet the other person where s/he is.
Let me illustrate that point, with a story about me and my cat.
Expecting Human Reasoning out of a Cat (Yes, it’s futile!)
I have a cat named Jean-Luc (yes, we’re Trekkies). He’s been with us all 15 years of his life and he’s really a grumpy old cat. Well, he was grumpy way before he was old — he’s just a very vocal, expressive, smart and demanding cat, able to use his meowing to make his feelings known rather clearly. When you listen to him, you can usually tell how he’s feeling, though it’s not always clear what he wants.
Every morning around 6am, he starts roaming around the house meowing loudly. The human portion of the family starts the day around 7am. We homeschool and value our sleep a lot, so generally we don’t wake up kids until they awake on their own.
Except that Jean-Luc meows so loudly every morning, demanding something. I am always awake at this time already, but I’m afraid he’s going to wake everybody else up. And my usual response was to scold and berate him, sometimes even hit him lightly, trying to communicate to him that I’m not pleased and he needs to be quiet.
That’s not a very productive way to resolve a conflict with your cat. He usually complains even louder, unabashed and unashamed of his demands, though he can tell I’m mad at him so he gets restless and more agitated, too. I do know that he’s hungry, so I feed him some of the days — but other days I don’t even bother to do that, because feeding him only stops him temporarily.
So yesterday when he started, I finally got down to his level. I got on my hands and knees and asked him gently “What do you want?”
Jean-Luc seemed surprised at first, I’ve never really come down and allowed him to just state his needs. He’s always had to demand aggressively to get our attention. The tone of his meowing changed immediately to a softer and less edgy one.
And I just followed him around on my fours for the next 20 minutes or so, telling Jean-Luc “tell me what you want — I’ll give it to you.” That led to a generous amount of petting and scratching, getting his breakfast, to drinking water in the bathroom. The last bit was particularly revealing — I learned that he doesn’t like his water in a deep bowl, as he has to stick his head into a narrow area. He likes it on a shallow, wider dish.
The morning was a quieter, if not completely quiet, affair. And I learned a valuable lesson.
From my point of view, I know what Jean-Luc should do. Wait until everyone wakes up, wait quietly and be satisfied with whatever water/food I give him. Hey, it’s not like he’s earning his keep here, right? He should just be grateful I meet his needs at all.
Except that you can’t just expect a cat to follow such a human reasoning. A cat is a cat, he’s just following his instincts.
Knowing the Answer Doesn’t Mean You Should Demand It
But this doesn’t apply just to a cat. I saw so many other situations in my life where I was just on a high and lofty platform, looking down, judging everybody else as below me, expecting everyone else to “catch up.”
Like my 4-year old son and his picking up his toys. He can do it if I remind him right after he’s finished playing with a toy — but if I let him go on and pull out more toys, then after that he can’t pick up. There are too many out and he gets overwhelmed at the prospect of picking up so many toys. Forcing and threatening may get the job done for a day, but it doesn’t really solve the problem — the next day, the same situation. In fact, threatening with punishment makes it worse, because then he learns that he doesn’t have to do it unless he’s threatened.
The grown-up me knows the right thing to do. But it’s not right of me to demand that out of my son, because he doesn’t have the capacity to think and operate from the same place I am. Instead of berating and scolding him, the kind thing to do is to meet him where he is. To know where he’s at and what his issues are, and work with him to instill good habits in a way that is compatible with his stage in development.
Even with grown-ups, though, this still holds true. I was so busy judging and criticizing everybody around me, wondering why they haven’t figured out all the lessons I have learned, repeatedly reminding them what the right answers were. I thought I was helping, but in truth, I was just being arrogant and lazy. Instead of meeting others where they are, I just stayed in my own spot, expecting everybody to come to where I am instead my going to them.
Judging hurts. Criticizing — pointing out where they are doing wrong — does more harm than good. A truly kind thing to do is to meet them where they are and help them take a step forward from that point. If they are in earlier stages of development, it’s really not useful to point out or demand implementation of answers that are many stages ahead of where they are.
It’s a simple lesson, but hard to practice — because meeting them where they are takes more effort. But I am learning that it’s really the only way. Demanding others to change and come to where you are just isn’t fair, nor is it productive. But you can change yourself — you can travel the distance, and meet them where they are.
It makes a huge difference, like night and day. It was an important lesson for me to learn.