I’m not speaking here of a boxing-match or of bullies who like beating up others. What I’m referring to is the widespread human temptation to put others into “boxes”. What makes this so terrible, and yet so tremendously tempting?
It can seem an innocent enough pastime. What I tell my spouse or mother, or what I talk about in the inner recesses of the family, won’t hurt anybody, right? I can trust my mother or spouse sufficiently that he or she won’t be going round, spreading the bad news about Aunt Emma’s character faults. Perhaps I can trust them, and neither of us will share this with other members of the family or let alone, God forbid, with Aunt Emma herself (nothing worse than having the confidant of one’s critical thoughts relate them to the person in question). But what has been said has a life of its own and a way of coloring many aspects of life. Having spoken about it means that it will “want out again” (except under some conditions, which I will address later); I might not tell Cousin Jane in so many words, but I might just slightly curl my upper lip, when Aunt Emma is mentioned, saying much about my opinion of this person. It is impossible to control everything we express through our body and especially our face. I once read that 95% of our communication is non-verbal. Perhaps this estimate is too high, but it points in the right direction, namely that we reveal much about what we think and are in non-verbal ways.
The way I “read” Aunt Emma may have a tremendous impact on the way I treat her - however many efforts to the contrary - and how others “infected” by my opinion will approach her as well. Though gossip goes further than pigeonholing others, the latter is certainly an aspect of gossip. The well-known story of St. Philip Neri, who told a penitent guilty of gossip to pluck a chicken and strew its feathers all over town, and then to gather those feathers again a week later, expresses the way it spreads. One cannot counter-act the many bad effects of gossip, the harm one has done to another’s reputation, any more than one can collect the dispersed chicken-feathers on the same day, let alone a week later. Furthermore, having “boxed” Aunt Emma, this will more likely than not express itself in my dealings with her. Perhaps she is thick-skinned and won’t notice it (though don’t count on that), or perhaps I’m simply very good at hiding my thoughts and feelings from others, but chances are that her inner radar will sense that she’s been pinned down by me.
Pigeonholing another is terrible, since it freezes him at a given point in time and reduces him to whatever warped vision I have of him. It determines him to a certain extent and impinges on his inner freedom. Yes, he might rise above my petty judgment and be detached enough not to care what others think; but this takes great humility and grounding in God’s love (or a thick skin). Chances are he is not yet that holy, and anyway, my judgment remains a sin against him either way. It is a sin, since the other is a mystery to anyone but God. Nobody can know the inner recesses of another’s soul; nobody knows his motivations or his level of responsibility, if any. Only God does, for it takes somebody omniscient and absolutely good to plumb the inner abyss of the soul, be it that of others or my own. In his Confessions St. Augustine attempts to understand his own past motivations, and, despite his best attempts and his psychological finesse, he ultimately can’t. Nor can we, notwithstanding the developments in the field of psychology. Something ultimately escapes us and remains opaque. We have to pray for the grace to know the twists and turns of our heart; as we grow in the spiritual life, so we grow in self-knowledge. But if we can’t even know ourselves fully, how can we expect to do so regarding another?
“Boxing” the other furthermore fails to take into account the freedom of the human person who can, until her last breath, change to the very core of her being. It goes against the virtue of hope, for it says “you will not improve, you cannot better yourself, you are a hopeless case; you are essentially small-minded, egotistic, addicted etc.” It attaches the other to his vice, nailing him into the coffin of his weaknesses. Hence it also goes against caritas, for instead of affirming the other with love, I am placing myself above him, putting him down and reducing him to his vices. It is a sign of great pride to think I am able to grasp somebody who contains a universe of feelings, decisions, perceptions within himself; it means putting myself in the place of God. It is not surprising therefore, that the devil, who likes to take God’s place, is called the accuser; for he is a “specialist”, so to speak, for all vices, spotting them from a distance, gloating over them, and demanding that God condemn the accused in cold justice. Since he cannot understand love, he cannot get the full picture – nor do we, when we judge.
For pigeonholing another is a form of judging, and is so tremendously tempting, since it feeds my self-righteousness; it dwarfs the other to a size that I can lord over him (at least in the court of my mind, if not in action), and means I can manipulate him more easily, since I understand how he “ticks”. It’s a way of staying in control, while an open heart carries the risk of being hurt. It’s also a way of remaining outside another’s pain, and it’s an easy way to make the other responsible for his suffering. I don’t have any patience with Maggy, because she doesn’t do x, y, and z which, according to my own lights, would certainly improve her situation. I might not know that given Maggy’s situation, she cannot try out x, y and z. The more unknown her suffering is to me from personal experience, the more I will be tempted to judge her.But the more I love, the more I will be willing to empathize and understand her pain from the inside.
The most common and most understandable reason for pigeonholing another is because he has hurt me. It’s a way of getting back at him. “You have hurt me through your insensitive remarks, hence you are insensitive”. Pain makes me transition from my experience and hurt, to judge the other. Therefore the point is not to close one’s eyes to what the other has done to me – especially if it has happened multiple times – for this would pave the way to abuse, but to abstain from reducing him to this fault, ascribing intentions and a full responsibility to the other, which are simply not mine to know. This can be very difficult, especially, when it seems so “obvious” to us what is going on.
Many are the people who have been falsely accused of character-flaws, when they were in reality ill: the paranoia which can come with the early onset of Alzheimer, the strange behavior stemming from a yet undiagnosed brain-tumor, the socially jarring interaction with an undiagnosed autistic person, or simply the seeming laziness and selfishness of a person suffering from chronic fatigue, are wrongly held against them. Motivations and evil intentions are ascribed to them, when the reason for their behavior is completely other. Now these are “merely” illnesses, which, once diagnosed, help us read the other differently. But what about a person’s past history which I don’t know or can’t understand and which might reduce her responsibility to little or nil? Hence, it is not for us to judge; only God can, and we will probably be surprised on the other side of the grave by the heart of gold hiding behind Aunt Emma’s aggressive nervousness, or, in contrast, by the manipulative streak which lurked behind Uncle Peter’s easygoing optimism.
I can’t (and shouldn’t) close my eyes to the faults of others or to the ways in which their behavior hurts me. But I can abstain from judging them, and from claiming to know the core of their hearts. This sometimes requires heroism, for it can mean bearing some tremendous pain inflicted on me without lashing back through judgment - and judging another can be tremendously gratifying. This doesn’t mean I can’t vent my frustrations and voice my pain to someone trustworthy, who won’t judge the other in turn. The purpose of this exercise will precisely be to avoid judging another by letting off steam. Abstaining from judging another doesn’t mean either that I should let myself be victimized: I might have to stay away from a person who continuously hurts me, or stand up to her.
Let us not underestimate the difficulty of abstaining from judging others; simply biting one’s tongue – though a good beginning – is not enough. It is the sign of great sanctity to desist from doing so, especially in the face of intense hurt. Only burning charity, fanned by the infinite love of God, can make us capable of perceiving another without “boxing” her, but see her with the eyes of love. Only true love makes us bear all things, hope all things and believe all things (1 Cor 13:7); and this, sinners that we are dealing with other sinners, is a miracle in its own right.
 The most opaque to people, who haven’t suffered from them, are therefore mental illnesses; the terrible thing is that judgment and lack of compassion make these ten times worse.