Half a lifetime ago I ran my first half marathon. I was still young, in my twenties, with a lot of growing up to do. I had many psychological issues that I hadn’t even begun to start unravelling. That day was a landmark in my life, firstly because it was the first half marathon I ever did and secondly because I had a psychological breakthrough while running it.
The route took me around Portsmouth and Southsea, near where the Great South Run is held these days. Somewhere around the 8-9 mile mark I noticed an older woman ahead of me. I estimated she was probably somewhere around fifty but she may have been forties or sixties for all I knew; when you’re young anybody over thirty looks old and you’ve got no concept of age. However old she was, she was ahead of me. There were only ten to twenty metres between us and for the next couple of miles I set my mind to catching up with her. Except I couldn’t. I never got any closer but she never got further away. I just trailed round in her wake as the miles ticked by in the back streets of Southsea.
My anger and indignation at being beaten by this woman was summed in a question – “How can this old, weak woman be ahead of tall, fit, athletic twenty-something me?”. Her being ahead made no sense to how I conceived the world, my place in it or what is right and just.
Then I had the landmark thought.
“I don’t know anything about this woman. For all I know she may have been Olympic champion twenty years ago and been training hard throughout her life. She may be on the downside of her running career and have a pedigree that far outstrips my own.”
The more I thought about it, and this is the great thing about distance running – you’ve got plenty of time for thinking, the more I realised I knew nothing about who she was, where she’d been and therefore why she should, or shouldn’t, be ahead of me. Simply put, I had no justification for believing I should be faster other than my own arrogance and prejudices of what older people, maybe specifically women, are capable of. I was judging on appearances.
With that realisation about the darkness of my inner thinking, I stopped jumping to conclusions about other people. I started to withhold judgement until I knew more. That became my default mode, refuse to make a judgement until I know more about situations or expectations. Always ask more questions, find out more information and when pushed for a conclusion, include a caveat along the lines of “to the best of my knowledge at this time”!
Now this “Don’t judge a book by its cover” approach may seem a little sanctimonious but there was a hidden benefit that I began to see in the following months.
When I stopped judging other people, I stopped judging myself.
By doing that, I opened up new vistas for living. No longer was I tied to my ill-conceived, ready-formed judgements about who I was. Now instead I was free to change and evolve whenever new ideas and information became available. I could incorporate better ways of living and being, without jeopardising my self-image because I no longer had one set in stone.