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Who’s to judge?

Kari Swanson

I want you to think of someone from your past, who could still be a part of your life today but doesn’t necessarily have to be.

This person could be someone from your childhood, middle school years, high school years, college years, but someone from a while ago.

How would you describe this person — kind, funny, intense?

What traits do they have?

What was your connection, casual or close?

What characteristics do you like about this person?

What quirks do they have?

Now imagine that something occurred in which they got in trouble and had some serious consequences handed to them. Does this change how you view them? Does this now, all of a sudden, make this person a “bad” person? Does this make everything you thought of them so many years ago false?

This is a tough topic. People get changed by environment, circumstances, choices, many different addictions, or all of the above. The way you feel about someone prior to a change in environment, circumstances, choices, or addictions is how you knew that person. It is your relationship with that individual. Things happen. Bad things happen to good people. Good people make bad choices, sometimes over and over again. Do you have to feel bad for claiming the individual you knew was “good?” That you actually liked this person? Do you have to question or defend your judge of character?

Absolutely not.

I think one of the easiest things for people is judgment. The judgment of others. It is so easy to decide that someone is “bad” because of an instance we see on the television or read in the paper. It is so easy to determine that this person should “get what is coming to them.”

I am a true believer in “everyone has a story,” and we do not know what makes someone do or not do something. Things written or said about another person does not tell this person’s story. Words spoken in gossip do not tell someone’s story.

The amount of a person’s resiliency, ability to abstain from drugs and alcohol, the ability to adhere to what is right or wrong in a moment of impulsive wildness can be the difference between a good choice and a bad choice and the difference between going home and going to jail.

I look at people like stories and I think that is because, in the career that I have chosen, I hear the life stories of many, many people. I see people as the beautiful complicated mix of the chapters in their story. In each person’s story, good, bad, ugly, there is at least one person who loves them, who cherishes them and believes in them. This person has seen the potential this individual has and could contribute to the world and wants the best for this individual. They have seen the “likable” side of the individual. They have, most often, see the individual prior to substance use, prior to mental health breaks, prior to bad influences. This is the person I often think of when I read or hear of the consequences someone is receiving due to the choices they have made in a particular chapter of his/her life. This person is the person that people then turn to judge and question. Why didn’t they do something? Why didn’t they know something? They had to have seen the bad!

Please, remember, this person is mourning the loss of someone they love, even when that individual lost is still alive.

Why is it in our nature to cast judgment?

Why do we have to tell other people’s stories from our perspective?

Why can’t we feel bad for people that have fallen on difficult times or can’t shake an addiction?

Our views of people should be influenced by our relationship with that person if we have one — our beliefs, values, the way we were raised and our faith.

Our views should not be influenced by others or by media reports.

If you are used to reading my articles, you know that I am a strong advocate for choices and that there are consequences for bad choices and bad behaviors. I am, in no way, saying that’s not the case. You commit acts that are against the law, absolutely you need to receive punishment.

I will say what I have told my boys: “The action is bad (or undesirable) but that does not mean you are.”

Certainly, there are “bad” people, they are not to whom I am referring.

There are people that have gotten mixed up in the wrong crowd and have made bad choices that, unfortunately, carry life-long consequences.

There are people who get mixed up with substances, have a difficult time with abstinence, and during substance abuse have engaged in behaviors they most likely would not have if not under the influence. The action of “bad” does not mean that this individual is inherently “bad.”

I worked in a maximum security prison in North Carolina right after I obtained my Master’s Degree. The prison was for 18-to-23-year-old males, and they were incarcerated for either murder or rape or both. These are certainly bad behaviors. I did individual and group therapy with these individuals. I spent a lot of time alone with many of these individuals. I remember telling someone from home that I really loved my job. I still love that job and would return to the forensic environment if ever given that opportunity.

Does this mean that I “liked” the individuals incarcerated? I enjoyed my interactions with these individuals therapeutically and I was able to see changes in some individuals in this particular setting. I saw what taking someone out of their environment and circumstances could do for some individuals. I saw what potential some of them were able to have if their environment and circumstances were different. I read court documents and stories that would break your heart. If these individuals were to return to that environment and circumstances, would they continue the path they had chosen prior to being incarcerated? Most likely. Were they “bad” people? Some of them certainly were. Some were people that made bad choices, were in families in which they were instructed to do certain bad behaviors, and some were caught up in extreme substance abuse. Their stories were all different. Did they have the ability to change? Absolutely, some of them did. Others, the true sociopaths, no.

It is not our job here to judge people on what they have done (unless of course you wear the black robe and have schooling for that), or why their story changed from when we knew them until now.

The ability to see what is in an individual and to draw out their potential is something we should all strive for.

The ability to hang on to what we know of someone whose story has grossly changed since we had encounters with them is important.

The ability to continue to show kindness to those that the world has decided is no longer worthy of, it is a remarkable gift.

You decide how to treat people whose stories have taken a turn but, please, always remember your story, your chapter, could certainly take a turn, and how would you want to be treated?

Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.

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