Midway through the conversation, your boyfriend grows quiet. Then without warning he gets up. With a quick goodbye he jumps on his bike and is gone. You thought he’d be staying for dinner, but now there you are alone. You feel confused and hurt.

You haven’t seen your 10-year old niece for months. When you arrive at your brother’s house you head right up to her room to say hi. You find her sitting on the bed with her ear buds in. She looks up at you and nods, but instead of pulling the ear buds out to say hello she goes right on listening. You shrug it off and go downstairs. But it eats at you.

What do these situations have in common? Wait! Before you answer, imagine this: If you answer wrong you will be forced to spend the rest of your life lost and alone wandering helplessly in a dark and menacing forest!

Now, with that scary possibility in mind: What do these situations have in common?

Is it that both depict rude people acting inconsiderately? Maybe. But remember there’s a lot at stake here! So let’s think for a second. Is there something you can be absolutely certain these situations have in common?

How’s this? Both situations are ambiguous.

In both situations, someone did something unexpected. That much we know for sure.

Sure, you felt stung. Sure, you felt hurt and confused. And yes, you wondered what kind of terrible person would make you feel that way.

But the fact remains that you have no idea why your boyfriend or niece behaved the way they did. You know for sure what they did, but you don't know for sure why they did it.    

So why does it feel like we know more than we do when our feelings get hurt? If you had a recording of your inner experience and you could slow it down all the way, you’d probably notice that in the very moment you felt stung you started creating a story. A judgment story. And it went something like this: Your boyfriend is selfish. Rude. Mean. Inconsiderate. Your niece is a spoiled rotten brat. Oh and your brother and sister in-law are doing a terrible job raising her!

You’d also notice that as the judgment story took hold in your mind the hurt grew, and with it the anger.

And if you’re like most people, your next impulse was to look for someone else to share your judgment story with. Preferably someone who would “take your side” and agree with your assessment of the situation.

But is the story true? If you knew you would be forced to spend the rest of your life lost and alone wandering helplessly in a dark and menacing forest, would you stick to your story?

“Why does it matter if the story is true? I’m hurt. Someone did something wrong to me and I have every right to judge them. Don't I?”

Take it easy! The reason it matters is because, more than anything else, the stories we tell ourselves about the people in our lives determine the quality of our relationships with those people.

The Fork of Ambiguity

I’m no relationship expert, but I do know this: Relationships are jam packed with ambiguity. The people in my life say and do things all the time that I don’t expect, can’t explain, or are just plain different than what I want them to say or do.

And what I’m starting to see is that ambiguity triggers judgment. It’s the “once upon a time” to my judgment stories.    

It seems that every ambiguous situation brings me to a fork in the road. A moment when my definition of reality can go in one of two directions.

To the left is Judgment Road. It’s a familiar road, ending in a place where other people are mean or stupid or selfish and I’m their innocent victim. It’s an ugly drive, but it has few turns and I can drive it blindfolded.

To the right is Benefit of the Doubt Boulevard. It’s an unpaved, seldom traveled road with many unexpected twists and turns. I have to stay alert to avoid crashing or making a wrong turn. But it always brings me someplace new and interesting. It always brings me closer to the truth.

You see the problem is that we spend most of our time speeding down Judgment Road, barely noticing the turn off to Benefit of the Doubt Boulevard.

Sound of Screeching Breaks!

Stop. Since we have some time right now, let’s turn around and take a closer look at this so-called fork of ambiguity. Let’s see if we can figure what’s going on there, and why it’s so hard to notice it in our daily travels in the world of relationships.

As you stood there and watched your boyfriend pedal away on his bike you had a choice. It may not seem like you did, but you did. Your choice was to feel hurt and judgmental. Or feel concerned and curious.

Remember, the situation was ambiguous. You didn’t yet know the truth about it.

So the question is: Did you want to know or do you want to judge? Since it’s impossible to do both at the same time, it was a choice you had to make.

“But he hurt me! How can I be concerned about someone who just hurt me?” If you’re thinking this then your already miles down Judgment Road. 

What if your boyfriend had just found out that he failed an important test at school? What if he knew how much you wanted him to get into graduate school, and he was afraid of disappointing you? What if he wanted to tell you, to be comforted by you, but he was too afraid and embarrassed admit he screwed up? So he decided to leave rather than to risk an emotional scene.

What if your niece had just got her very first MP3 player for her birthday? What if she knew how much you loved listening to music and so she wanted you to see that she loved music too? What if in her 10 year-old mind showing you she loved listening to music seemed more important than stopping listening to say hello?

Believe me, stranger things have happened on Benefit of the Doubt Boulevard!

The Lesson

Make the sign of a Number Two with your hand. Now point that Two directly in front of you. That’s the fork of ambiguity. Now turn your body to the left and to the right. Notice no matter which way you turn the fork of ambiguity is right there in front of you. That’s how it is with relationships.

The question always is, will you notice the fork when it appears? Will you be alert enough to choose which road to travel? Or will you continue to speed habitually down Judgment Road?

Truth: With each and every mile you travel on Judgment Road you lose a little more of your ability to empathize with other people. And the world you live in starts to look meaner. And your heart becomes a little harder.

More truth: If travelled enough times, Judgment Road eventually dead ends in what feels like a dark and menacing forest where you wander helplessly, lost and alone in search of a way out.

The choice is always yours.

Eric Silver, Doctor of Society

To submit a story, or poem, or whatever you got to the NonJudgment Day Project blog, send it to NJDProject@gmail.com 

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