Our lives are like castles that we like to protect. Two tools I’ve found useful are vigilance and judgment. Vigilance is devoted attentiveness or watchfulness. Judgment in this case is the formation of an opinion after consideration or deliberation and the capacity to assess situations or circumstances and draw sound conclusions. I have used and over-used both these tools to keep me safe and to be on the lookout for people and situations I’d like to invite into my life.
That said, vigilance and judgment can also be occasions for turmoil. This often happened when I exercised my teaching ministry as a Catholic priest. I was vigilant in transmitting the objective teachings of the church in matters of faith and morals in a balanced, post-Vatican II kind of way. I thought I used proper judgment in finding opportunities for this aspect of my ministry and for the practical applications. Yet except in rare instances I experienced a mix of indifference, push-back, or hostility from lay people and from those who governed the church. I was even accused of being overly idealistic by left-of-center types (including Cardinal Law!) for doing what I thought was my job.
This idealism concerning “what ought to be” had fueled my passion for ministry. After almost 25 years of attempting to do this without very much enthusiastic support, however, and seeing my efforts undone by alternative messages, I shifted to a position of “what is” as a new starting point. This more realistic perspective was much more pastoral but caused just as much turmoil from the right-of-center crowd who accused me of being too lax.
Growing up I hated turmoil of any sort. It was especially painful when it took the form of derision or criticism, especially from peers. I learned to use vigilance constantly. For example I never resonated with the concept of team sports. When I was forced in high school gym class to play tag football, I used to find a congenial cohort who hated it just as much. We faked “blocking” each other on the line so that we looked engaged and would never have to deal with the ball. The same was true in basketball (a sport I still can’t figure out). I discovered that if I ran up and down the court and looked the other way no one would throw the darned thing to me. And if they did, I just threw it back!
Vigilance also worked to enhance my life. It made me aware of interesting people who sometimes lived on the edge: young people who did not fit into current stereotypes, adults whom I found intellectually compelling, professionals who taught me a great deal about myself and human behavior. I found such people refreshing and stimulating; they lived by their principles without apology. And while I may not have agreed with all aspects of their beliefs and lifestyles, I respected them as unique and special additions to my life experience.
If vigilance was the castle wall then judgment was the drawbridge. Judgment was rooted in my principles and motivated by my inner spirit. I used judgment along with intuition and empathy to scope out the territory around my castle, to identify where the social land-mines, offensive weapons, and ethical snake-pits were located.
For example, in my first year at Boston University, the federal government decided to eliminate student deferments for the military draft and institute a lottery system based on birthday. Dates were to be drawn in a national lottery (televised live!) to determine which young men would be sent as gun fodder into the army to fight the unpopular war in Vietnam. I clearly judged that I could not and would not kill. I was about to apply for conscientious objector status when my birth-year’s draft lottery took place. My number was 285, too high ever to be called. I was relieved (and this is not to denigrate the terrible price veterans of this war have paid and continue to pay).
The downside of vigilance and judgment is that they frequently activated inner saboteurs in the form of hyper-vigilance and judgmentalism. As a reticent and often guileless child I would open a bit too widely to others and often got hurt. I grew increasingly careful as I discovered that my guilelessness and candor were usually not reciprocated and even used against me. I recall many instances from my seminary years though the next thirty-two in parish ministry.
These saboteurs kept me at a distance from others. I became the consummate observer of human nature. I misused my intuition tell myself stories about almost everyone I encountered, even casually. In this way I maintained a strange kind of private control over people who might feel threatening. Sometimes my stories, and intuition, proved accurate. Usually they were simply my way of pre-judging and keeping potential and imagined conflict at bay.
Hyper-vigilance and judgmentalism also fed my anger and victimhood. As real and painful as some of my wounds were I didn’t realize how much being the “victim” governed my life. Constantly conflicted, I had to come to terms with the fact that it was not my job to change others’ points of view. One huge lesson for me was realizing that many Catholic clergy separate in their minds the institutional aspects of Catholicism from the spiritual aspects of their ministries. With this perspective they are able to survive and thrive in their vocation without feeling like victims. I learned that I could not do this. I had had it with false divisions. My anger kept telling yelling at me that my life was dissonant. I finally faced the fact that needed a more integrated approach and so moved on.
Having done a great job for many years in protecting my castle and raising my draw bridge, I have now almost completely drained and filled in the moat, opened the gates and decided to live a more whole life. I have become more vulnerable while creating and maintaining new emotional boundaries. I use the tools of vigilance and judgment more sparingly, lest they continue as a bad habit. I have also refocused these tools to open me up to endless and vibrant vistas in life, where anything is possible and where my highest and deepest spirit can thrive.
A dear friend used to say repeatedly that I was too hard on myself, that I made my life more difficult than necessary. I was so wrapped up in my limited perspective that it took me a long time to understand what she meant. I had turned good tools of vigilance and judgment against my best interests. I made up and recounted endless “stories” to justify a dead-end life perspective.
Are you making your life more difficult than it need be? What is your highest spirit saying about your perspective; is it working for or against you?How have the tools of vigilance and judgment helped or hindered your relationships and career? What needs to change?
Contact the Life & Spirit Coach at firstname.lastname@example.org .