Don’t let first impression thwart potential friendship

My cell phone rings and Mom’s name flashes on the screen. “I’m ashamed of myself,” she whispers into the phone.

“Oh, hi Mom. About what?” I ask. My mother typically begins our phone conversations as if we have been talking for a while.

“I played bridge today and was stuck with a real dud for a partner,” she says. “Her name was Alice and she barely talked to me. She couldn’t keep her mind on anything and kept checking her cellphone, which never rang, by the way, which is why I don’t want one.”

“Good call about the cellphone,” I assure her. Though maybe not such a good call about Alice, I think to myself.

A bit of back story: My mother has a tendency to judge people (and evidently cellphones) by outward appearances and first impressions. True, we all make assessments of others based on how they look, dress, talk, even eat, but her quick judgments have always been a problem for me.

“So what happened, Mom?” I ask, ready to defend Alice even though we have never met.

“We played bridge and just like I suspected, she was terrible,” she says. “She didn’t concentrate on the game for more than a minute and kept looking at the door as if she couldn’t wait to get out of there. I kept reminding her that it was her turn.” My mom was silent for a moment, then continued, “But after the game, a woman came up to her and asked how she was doing.

‘Not so good,’ Alice whispered. ‘I’m waiting to hear from my doctor about my kidneys. They aren’t working right and I may need dialysis.’”

My mother was shocked. It had never occurred to her that her “dud of a partner” might have been worried or scared about her health. Mom was ashamed – of herself and of how quickly she had misjudged the situation.

“I got up and went over to Alice and told her that I was going to think of her all weekend and hope that she gets good news,” said Mom.

With tears in her eyes, Alice thanked her. What started as Mom’s unwarranted assumption ended in the beginning of a friendship. That Monday, Mom called Alice and learned that she wouldn’t need dialysis after all. Mom hung up, but not before telling Alice that she looked forward to seeing her again soon – and she meant it.

It’s so easy, and so very human, to judge another person, culture, race, gender or religion without really knowing much about them, their values and their reality. The critical judge who lives within each of us creates a story or generalization about another person or culture, which is often based more on perception and rumor than on fact. But it is that story that becomes the foundation upon which we base our future thoughts and actions.

The real crime is what happens to us when we unfairly judge others. Unfair assessments limit our ability to learn and appreciate different people or cultures. They break down the connections and common humanity we all share by erecting barriers between us. And they restrict our ability to grow and become compassionate human beings. In the end, unfair judgments about others reflect more on our own character than they do on the person whom we are judging.

Challenging our judgments about others can change our world in positive ways. That is why the Torah commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which is further refined in Pirkei Avot as: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” That rule works for me, because I hate being judged by others!

The bottom line is that if I don’t want others to judge me based on the choices I make or the way I live, then I have to be open to others in the same way. Simply put: Unless I am willing to be open-minded to others’ choices, decisions and ways of life, I won’t be able to judge them fairly.

I love that my Mom came to a similar conclusion without the benefit of reading Leviticus or Pirkei Avot. Because in the end, we all stand to grow and learn if we follow the sage words written by Rabbi Hillel over 2,000 years ago: “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide.

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