“The Supreme Charity of the World”
From The Kingship of Self-Control, 1901
By William George Jordan
True charity is not typified by an almsbox. The benevolence of a check book does not meet all the wants of humanity. Giving food, clothing and money to the poor is only the beginning, the kindergarten class, of real charity. Charity has higher, purer forms of manifestation. Charity is but an instinctive reaching out for justice in life. Charity seeks to smooth down the rough places of living, to bridge the chasms of human sin and folly, to feed the heart-hungry, to give strength to the struggling, to be tender with human weakness, and greatest of all, it means—obeying the Divine injunction: “Judge not.”
The true symbol of the greatest charity is the scales of judgment held on high, suspended from the hand of Justice. So perfectly are they poised that they are never at rest; they dare not stop for a moment to pronounce final judgment; each second adds its grain of evidence to either side of the balance. With this ideal before him, man, conscious of his own weakness and frailty, dare not arrogate to himself the Divine prerogative of pronouncing severe or final judgment on any individual. He will seek to train mind and heart to greater keenness, purity, and delicacy in watching the trembling movement of the balance in which he weighs the characters and reputations of those around him.
It is a great pity in life that all the greatest words are most degraded. We hear people say: “I do so love to study character, in the cars and on the street.” They are not studying character; they are merely observing characteristics. The study of character is not a puzzle that a man may work out over night. Character is most subtle, elusive, changing and contradictory—a strange mingling of habits, hopes, tendencies, ideals, motives, weaknesses, traditions and memories—manifest in a thousand different phases.
There is but one quality necessary for the perfect understanding of character, one quality that, if man have it, he may dare to judge—that is, omniscience. Most people study character as a proofreader pores over a great poem: his ears are dulled to the majesty and music of the lines, his eyes are darkened to the magic imagination of the genius of the author; that proofreader is busy watching for an inverted comma, a mis-spacing, or a wrong-font letter. He has an eye trained for the imperfections, the weaknesses. Men who pride themselves on being shrewd in discovering the weak points, the vanity, dishonesty, immorality, intrigue and pettiness of others, think they understand character. They know only part of character–they know only the depths to which some men may sink; they know not the heights to which some men may rise. An optimist is a man who has succeeded in associating with humanity for some time without becoming a cynic.
We never see the target a man aims at in life; we see only the target he hits. We judge from results, and we imagine an infinity of motives that we say must have been in his mind. No man since the creation has been able to live a life so pure and noble as to exempt him from the misjudgment of those around him. It is impossible to get aught but a distorted image from a convex or a concave mirror.
If misfortune comes to someone, people are prone to say, “It is a judgment upon him.” How do they know? Have they been eavesdropping at the door of Paradise? When sorrow and failure come to us, we regard them as misdirected packages that should be delivered elsewhere. We do too much watching of our neighbor’s garden, too little weeding in our own.
Bottles have been picked up at sea thousands of miles from the point where they have been cast into the waters. They have been the sport of wind and weather; carried along by ocean currents, they have reached a destination undreamed of. Our flippant, careless words of judgment of the character of someone, words lightly and perhaps innocently spoken, may be carried by unknown currents and bring sorrow, misery and shame to the innocent. A cruel smile, a shrug of the shoulders or a cleverly eloquent silence may ruin in a moment the reputation a man or woman has been building for years. It is as a single motion of the hand may destroy the delicate geometry of a spider’s web, spun from its own body and life, though all the united efforts of the universe could not put it back as it was.
We do not need to judge nearly so much as we think we do. This is the age of snap judgments. The habit is greatly intensified by the sensational press. Twenty-four hours after a great murder there is difficulty in getting enough men who have not already formulated a judgment, to try the case. These men, in most instances, have read and accepted the garbled, highly colored newspaper account; they have to their own satisfaction discovered the murderer, practically tried him and—sentenced him. We hear readers state their decisions with all the force and absoluteness of one who has had the whole Book of Life made luminant and spread out before him. If there be one place in life where the attitude of the agnostic is beautiful, it is in this matter of judging others. It is the courage to say: “I don’t know. I am waiting further evidence. I must hear both sides of the question. Till then I suspend all judgment.” It is this suspended judgment that is the supreme form of charity.
It is strange that in life we recognize the right of every criminal to have a fair, open trial, yet we condemn unheard the dear friends around us on mere circumstantial evidence. We rely on the mere evidence of our senses, trust it implicitly, and permit it to sweep away like a mighty tide the faith that has been ours for years. We see all life grow dark, hope sink before our eyes, and the golden treasures of memory turn to cruel thoughts of loss to sting us with maddening pain. Our hasty judgment, that a few moments of explanation would remove, has estranged the friend of our life. If we be thus unjust to those we hold dear, what must be the cruel injustice of our judgment of others?
We know nothing of the trials, sorrows and temptations of those around us, of pillows wet with sobs, of the life-tragedy that may be hidden behind a smile, of the secret cares, struggles and worries that shorten life and leave their mark in hair prematurely whitened, and in character changed and almost re-created in a few days.
We say sometimes to one who seems calm and smiling: “You ought to be supremely happy; you have everything that heart could wish.” It may be that at that very moment the person is passing alone through some agony of sorrow, where the teeth seem almost to bite into the lips in the attempt to keep feelings under control, when life seems a living death from which there is no relief. Then these light, flippant phrases jar upon us, and we seem as isolated and separated from the rest of humanity as if we were living on another planet.
Let us not dare to add to the burden of another the pain of our judgment. If we would guard our lips from expressing, we must control our mind, we must stop this continual sitting in judgment on the acts of others, even in private. Let us by daily exercises in self-control learn to turn off the process of judging—as we would turn off the gas. Let us eliminate pride, passion, personal feeling, prejudice and pettiness from our mind, and higher, purer emotions will rush in, as air seeks to fill a vacuum. Charity is not a formula; it is an atmosphere. Let us cultivate charity in judging; let us seek to draw out latent good in others rather than to discover hidden evil. It requires the eye of charity to see the undeveloped butterfly in the caterpillar. Let us, if we would rise to the full glory of our privilege, to the dignity of true living, make for our watchword the injunction of the supreme charity of the world— “Judge not.”