“She was sitting at a table, talking with a woman who was, I quickly realized, quite drunk, yet determined to carry on a conversation…
I found myself increasingly confused by what seemed to be an interminable, essentially absurd exchange taking place between the two middle-aged women. When would it end – the alcoholic ranting and the silent nodding… Finally, silence fell upon the room. Dorothy Day asked the woman if she would mind an interruption. She got up and came over to me. She said, “Are you waiting to talk with one of us?”
The above is child psychiatrist Robert Coles’ account of his first meeting with Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day was a champion of the poor, the homeless, and the unemployed in the Bowery district of Manhattan and beyond throughout the mid-twentieth century. Coles was a young medical student when he heard about Day’s work; what he encountered when he met her shaped the rest of his life.
In his biography of Day, Coles claims that the words “with one of us” had a profound impact on him and his future work. Though humble and unassuming, Day had a reputation; she was both revered and reviled for her work in the trenches and her untiring efforts as a peace activist – Dorothy Day was famous. For her to think it possible that Coles may have wanted to speak with the inebriated woman rather than with her was not a self-effacing statement, but an affirmation of her belief that every person is worthwhile.
As it did for Coles, judgment comes easy for many of us when we encounter people who are drunk, homeless, jobless, or whose appearance and/or presence is off-putting. We have our personal and societal standards for acceptability, and can find ourselves making unfair assumptions about others from their appearance and/or behavior. While it is important to acknowledge our reactions, and to sometimes be wary of people and situations that could be harmful to us, what is called for more often is understanding, not criticism, compassion, not judgment, for as author and inspirational speaker Brad Meltzer states: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind always.”
I believe the inclination to judge others is often the result of the failure to embrace our own brokenness, the ways we may not measure up to an ideal. So along with being kind to others, it is important to be compassionate toward ourselves – not only on our best days, but on our worst as well.