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Observing Life with Alert Curiosity January 22, 2011

Posted by nrhatch in Humor, Mindfulness, People.
24 comments

Rik posted a piece this morning on self-proclaimed writers who do not take the time to read ~ No Time For Reading.

One of Rik’s comments sparked this post:

It is said that we should not judge people based on “appearance”, or a book by its cover, but I don’t think that rule apples to writers.  

When we make observations about those around us based on their external appearance, actions and statements, are we judging them?

Not necessarily.

From my perspective, there is a significant divide between judging people and observing them (with alert curiosity), even when we draw a few innocent inferences from our observations.

If I see X eat a piece of chocolate cake, I might assume that X enjoys both chocolate and cake, at least on occasion.

That’s an observation with a dollop of speculation, not a judgment.

I am not assessing X’s moral character.  I’m just noting one aspect of X’s life based on my observations ~ and I understand that I might be  incorrect.

Maybe X hates chocolate cake and is eating it for its medicinal properties.

Or maybe T paid X to eat it for the commercial they are shooting.

Or maybe R double-dog-dared X to take a bite.  Or . . .

If I see X eat a piece of chocolate cake, and conclude that X doesn’t care about the world around him or her because the chocolate being eaten is made by Hershey and everyone knows that Hershey exploits child labor in collecting cocoa beans in third world countries and . . .

That extrapolation is a judgment, not an observation.  I am judging X as a morally bankrupt person without ascertaining if X even knows the origin of the chocolate in question.

If I see Z with a tattoo, I might assume that Z likes the idea of permanent body art and has a high enough threshold of pain to endure the process of getting a tattoo.

Standing alone, those are observations with some supposition attached.

If I see Z with a tattoo and conclude (absent other evidence) that Z is guilty of ALL the negative stereotypical behavior patterns I’ve observed in other  people with tattoos . . . that’s a judgment built on shaky foundation indeed.

Just because Z has a tattoo doesn’t mean that Z rides a motorcycle, or is a promiscuous anarchist, or . . . anything else we might have observed about people with tattoos in the past.

Maybe Z just likes having “Momma’s Boy” tattooed on his arm.

If I see Y race over to the dessert table at a Potluck Dinner, grab three slices of the best looking dessert, and scarf them down in 15 seconds flat, I might conclude that Y is more concerned with satisfying his own desires (at that moment in time) than in making sure that everyone who wants a piece of that dessert gets one.

If I later hear Y tell Q that he only ate one slice, I might  conclude, based on my earlier observation,  that Y is either lying (or delusional).

In both cases, I’m observing Y’s actions, and making  somewhat rational conclusions (which may be correct or incorrect) about those actions.

I’m not attempting to judge the totality of Y’s moral fabric or character based on those isolated factual observations.

In contrast, if I observe Y taking (and inhaling) the cake and immediately conclude that Y is a self-centered narcissistic jerk who ALWAYS puts his needs before the needs of those around him, that’s a judgment because I’m attaching far-reaching moral significanceto isolated  observations  made from a very limited vantage point.

In the courtroom, everyone observes the trial and takes from it what they will, but only the jurors are asked to judge the accused ~ by taking their collective observations and sifting through them to find the accused guilty or innocent of the alleged wrongdoing.

It’s still a subjective process, but far more objective than making snap judgments without seeking input from others.

When we, either as writers or as residents of this planet, observe people, places, and things with alert curiosity, we are going to see patterns which enable us to conclude, suppose, or conjecture about what we’ve observed.

Based on our observations and experiences, we may be drawn to some people, places, and things,  while being repelled by others.

Observing and evaluating people, clothing, movies, books, and food in the light of our past experience and life preferences is not necessarily the same thing as judging or pre-judging them.

Based on my life preferences, I know better than to order Green Eggs and Ham.

I’m not prejudiced against them because they’re green.  It has nothing to do with the color.  The color is irrelevant.

I just don’t like ham or eggs.

Likewise, we may read the back cover or inside flap of a book jacket and decide that we do (or do not) want to spend additional time reading the book based on our known reading preferences.  For example, if the cover of a book depicts graphic violence or sex, I know it’s not the book for me.

The problem arises when we view our life preferences as the definitive guideline for judging people, places, and things as good or bad, right or wrong,  or the actors in question as guilty or innocent.

Although I don’t want to eat Green Eggs and Ham, I would not judge ham or eggs as good or bad.   Most food is morally neutral.  The same cannot be said of food producers.

Books filled with graphic violence and sex don’t appeal to me, but graphic subject matter on the cover, standing alone, wouldn’t allow me to judge the book as right or wrong.  Even the Supreme Court, with its collective wisdom, needs to watch prurient films and read lascivious books before pronouncing judgment.

Refraining from snap judgments about people, places, and things makes sense given our limited vantage point, but we need not stop observing the world around us.

Just the opposite, we should keep our eyes and ears open and mindfully observe life with alert curiosity rather than a rush to judgment.

“Wow.  That person with purple spiked hair and seven nose rings just ordered a plate of Green Eggs and Ham and four slices of coconut custard pie.  That’s interesting.”

Aah . . . that’s better!

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