The other day one of the bloggers I enjoy reading, Stylish Muslimah, posted a very thought-provoking post about making judgements off first impressions. She makes the very good point that frequently first impressions, bad or good, are frequently wrong and further impressions give a very different view of somebody. One example is of a girl she knew who was always criticizing her style of hijab as not being halal, but then turned out have a boyfriend herself!
Please go read the whole thing if you haven’t! I happen to like those big chunks of text myself 🙂 And anyway, thoughts come in more than snippets and sometimes should be explored and savored. At first, I started writing a comment, but then as I started to think about it I started making my own big chunks of text in my mind and rather than hijack the blog comments with a post even longer than the original (which might be a tad impolite) I decided to give the topic some more full attention as it deserves.
JUDGEMENTAL. It’s a bad word these days. A lot of people would probably say I’m judgemental. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing either. Everybody is trying not to be that way it seems, but we all are judgemental at some level, deny it or not! And I don’t think it’s something we should pretend doesn’t exist, either, even if someone were capable of truly not doing so. We have our judgement, our faculty for making judgements, for a reason, so we can make informed decisions, or just decisions, period. We’ve probably all heard research about how people decide if they are romantically interested in someone within a matter of seconds after meeting them, or stop listening to someone speaking about 18 seconds. So, while I believe in using it, and I don’t think we can really turn it off anyway, I think what’s important is not to make snap decisions based on that, and think we know everything–when all we know, all we can make the judgement about, is that very small part we see. Not only not the first impression, but not the second impression, not the third impression. You see what you see, but you don’t know somebody, and nobody does. Usually once you get to know more about someone, you realize they’re not all bad, and they’re not all good. Sometimes, there are enough disturbing things in their character that you don’t necessarily want to hang out with them, but there is a mixture in there.
I know I’ve been “misjudged” both ways… supposedly better than what I am and then somebody is shocked to see me screw up or do something stupid and I see myself fall in their eyes, even though I never intended to be seen as perfect, or on the other hand more often I’ve been completely dismissed on the basis of one or more of my undesirable qualities. It’s more likely that both people saw and judged something true, but they didn’t see anything else. And after they saw a small thing they mentally added on a whole laundry list of associated traits that had nothing really to do with what they saw (example: wearing a particular item of clothing, oh, she must be trying to indicate this, or this that and the other thing that isn’t necessarily true). For example: She’s wearing hijab (fact). She’s probably muslim (true). She’s: oppressed/married/faking it/trying to draw attention to herself/from X country/wearing it because she’s ashamed/forced/thinks I’m immodest/will sneer if she knows I’m muslim because I’m not wearing it and she is/must think she’s better than me. All of those things say more about the person thinking them than the actual object of the thought. It’s possible some of them are true, and likely that most of them are not, but they probably aren’t accurate conclusions in general.
We’d all like to think that we think about it a little bit longer than that and “reserve judgement” (another clever judgement phrase) but what that really means is either pretending that thought didn’t happen because we know it’s stereotypical or inappropriate to make that jump, or holding on to that thought and waiting to be proved right or wrong by what we notice next. After a certain amount of notices, we have our judgement. For some people, too many people, that is simply where the matter ends.
While there is indeed some truth in what people see in their first impression, it’s not the whole truth, and when you find out another truth that changes your whole opinion of somebody, that’s not necessarily the whole truth either. Here’s what I thought about that girl that Stylish Muslimah mentioned for instance. I’m sure we’ve all run into people like that. When you run into somebody like that and they act obnoxious and then you find out something bad about them that makes you feel justified in thinking they’re obnoxious (on some level). The inclination isn’t just that you misjudged them, it’s that NOW you are judging correctly. Perhaps, you were correct both times, but it’s not the whole picture (same thing when you suddenly see someone in a better light… that could all change with new info! It’s NEVER the whole truth). In my mind for instance that girl, reading about her my first thought is, yeah, I’ve seen and heard about folks like THIS before. I think, I probably wouldn’t like her or even tolerate her as well as Stylish Muslimah did :P. Then I think some more. Her behavior says to me that she is obviously struggling with haram and halal issues, probably in a large part over the boyfriend (or other things we don’t know about, but that’s an obvious one). Since she’s muslim, she knows it’s wrong. She’s acutely aware of it, she may be feeling guilty over it, she may be in denial over it, these things may make her hyper attentive to other perceived wrongs that she grooms or calls attention to or focuses on in a way of trying to make up for that in her soul. Like how your hijab is tied. Obnoxious? Yes. Painful. Yes. Much more for her than whoever she is picking on, though. Worthy of compassion, yes. And I STILL don’t know her story. Even if I knew her story, I wouldn’t know her story, really. Does anybody else besides Allah ever really know everything that goes through you and justifies your different actions and what you wish you didn’t do or did do? Isn’t that the part that matters the most?
Not saying I would want to be her buddy necessarily, but don’t we all do a mix of right and wrong things? I loathe hypocrisy and I pride myself on being true. On the other hand, I have screwed up numerous times in my life and done things I condemn, even openly condemn in both myself and others, large and small. We are capable of screwing up, designed that way, so we can learn from it, repent, seek forgiveness, and actively choose the right path from the depths of our souls. Sometimes, I think, those who have done wrong end up learning the lesson better about doing right in that area. (Of course, they’re probably continuing to make numerous mistakes in other areas at the same time! Learning one lesson doesn’t make you perfect either). Each of us has particular challenge areas. But, even if a person does wrong it’s still enjoined on us to speak against wrong, even if it’s the wrong we ourselves fall into or have fallen into in the path. In time this girl will learn the hard, painful, truth about why that boy was a bad idea, and she will learn it as no words of warning can ever convey. Perhaps, she will tell someone else about her experience, in hopes of saving them from the same pain, or perhaps she’ll keep her role in it hidden and just try to impart the lesson.
I don’t think the fact of it coming from experience will cheapen it with hypocrisy, perhaps even make it more heartfelt, and also perhaps make her more compassionate towards others than she is now. I hate when people think that nobody who has ever “sinned” can mention a sin, the whole “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” thing. Allah please forgive me if the prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) really did say that! But I don’t believe in the “lesson” that is given about that which is that nobody can ever say anything is wrong unless they themselves are perfect. NOBODY is perfect. Does that mean nobody can ever point out any flaw? Or they can only point out flaws they themselves haven’t fallen victim to at some point? I think this construct (aside from being unrealistic in terms of human nature) isn’t even a GOOD thing. It’s valuable to learn from mistakes and errors. It’s valuable to learn from other people who’ve been through it. Sometimes it’s a lot more valuable than hearing the lesson from somebody who has no idea the conflict that is facing you in a particular area. Or even seeing another person struggle with it can be a lesson in itself (I’m thinking now of that old joke that “the only reason I’m here may be to serve as an example to others of what not to do”!).
If we accept that everybody has bad parts, and everybody has good parts, and it’s okay to still talk about good and bad even though we are not perfect… I think that is a start to learning. That, and recognizing that what we see is NOT all there is. There is well known hadith where a man says, “By Allah ! Allah will not forgive such-and-such a person, at which Allah , Almighty, All-powerful said: “Who is he who swears about Me that I would not forgive so-and-so? I have pardoned him and wiped out your (the swearer’s) deeds.” (Narrated by Muslim). You might be thinking about another person’s bad behavior and Allah has ALREADY forgiven that person, because Allah knows better what is really in their heart and what else they have done. Likewise, in the Qur’an we are told not to say one group of women is better than another group of women, and one group of men is not better than another group of men, for the same reason (chapter 49, verse 11). At the same time though, we still have to enjoin good and forbid evil, as mentioned in numerous verses throughout the Qur’an. The strongest faith we are told (via hadith) is to actively work against what is wrong, and if unable to do that, to speak against it, and if unable to do that, to oppose it mentally. That still applies if you’re not perfect and you also have wrongs in yourself! But the first part tells us, not that we shouldn’t “judge” right from wrong, because we SHOULD, and not that we shouldn’t say anything about it, because we SHOULD, but that we shouldn’t condemn people for it. And maybe, they won’t condemn us for our faults by the same token, if they can see some good thing too. I remember the story of a man who lived at the same time as the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), and was frequently drunk in public, but the prophet admonished those who cursed him, saying that the man loved Allah and his messenger. Despite the very obvious sin he was falling into, repeatedly, which all the people saw, and which the prophet Mohammed (pbuh), did not condone. The man’s struggle was his own, it was public, which many of our sins are not (thank you God!) but the prophet also saw his faith and goodness and called attention to it and did not ostracize the man for this, despite the fact the man obviously knew that the drunkenness was wrong and continued to do so. Can you imagine this man showing up at a mosque today and what people’s reaction would be?
Ultimately, knowing that we all have the good and bad and the capacity to struggle inside to make that choice, I think it’s better to err on the side of compassion and look for the good part while avoiding as much damage as possible from the bad part. Trying to “turn off” judgement or intuition about people altogether can really run you into trouble! We need it to make essential choices. We shouldn’t imagine that the bad we don’t see, or the good we don’t see, isn’t there though… it’s possible to judge the part you see (in good judgement), but remember there is a lot there that you don’t see, always, good and bad.
Sometimes when you’ve just come through a total overhaul of your opinion of somebody, especially if they betrayed you, or hurt you, or you feel like an idiot about your initial impression being wrong, it can be especially hard to do so with other people. I have a big struggle with this because when it happens, it’s hard to trust new people when I can’t trust my own view, and I have to step back and re-evaluate… what is it exactly that I’m so sure that I know or don’t know? When I find out I was “wrong” about someone, I feel like I must have been wrong about everything: about that person, about “everything” in life, it just spirals out of control. Judgement is such a two-sided thing, it feels so “right” and ‘wrong” that it seems it can only BE one or the other, all the time. But in fact, I was not wrong about everything, I was wrong (perhaps!) about one particular thing. Or maybe, I wasn’t even wrong. Maybe I was right both times I evaluated the person, and I just have a different view of the person now because I can see more angles, though still incomplete. When you start to see enough angles of someone that you know you don’t want to be around them anymore, it can be very hard to believe that another angle will show you something you do want to see that turns the whole picture upside-down again. The reverse is also true… you might see all the bad at first and gradually discover good things, leading you to think that someone is all peaches and cream when in fact, again, there is good and bad still around the corner that you don’t even know. And the stuff you saw before didn’t go away either. We have such a tendency to believe what we see in front of us is everything that exists, instead of just the part that it is.
Leaving you with some optical illusions which so delightfully illustrate that things are not always as they appear, on first or second or subsequent glances 🙂
This is not a pipe!
Silhouette Illusion, very neat (animated): http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/sze_silhouette/index.html (took me forEVER to see this person going the other way, even with the help on this site!)
What do you see below?
What are you looking at me like that for? You saw dolphins, right? 😉
Site excerpt: “Interestingly, research has shown that young children cannot identify the intimate couple because they do not have prior memory associated with such a scenario. What they will see, however, is nine (small & black) dolphins in the picture! So, I guess we’ve already proven you’re not a young innocent child. Now, if it’s hard for you to find the dolphins within 6 seconds, your mind is SO corrupted that you probably need help!”
Click on the picture for details about the illusion or FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS if you can’t see the dolphins 🙂 (and later use this to determine when your children’s minds are hopelessly corrupted :P. If you dare!)