Did you ever see the movie Defending Your Life with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep? The movie begins with hapless Daniel (Brooks) meeting an untimely end and appearing at the judgment with other recently deceased, among whom is young Julia (Streep). They fall in love. Daniel has to defend himself against charges of cowardice in his pitiful life, otherwise he's to be sent back to try again; while, meanwhile, Julia is obviously on her way upward to becoming a true citizen of the universe. To know whether or not Daniel overcame his fears and accompanied Julia onward and upward, you'll have to watch the movie.
Don't feel too sorry for poor Daniel, now, having to defend his life. He's got a lot of company trying to escape some sort of punishment for his behavior. I'm not talking about reward or punishment in the hereafter, either. I'm thinking about how Daniel and a lot of other people - probably including you - spend so much time and energy worrying about the judgments that other people are passing on you right here and now. Over the years, you've decided (or have been taught) that other people's opinions of you are not only important, but they actually determine your net worth. Deliberately, or inadvertantly, you give other people the power over you to determine whether or not you're a success; even whether or not you're a valuable human being. Let's take a look at this.
As a child, you were constantly being judged and evaluated. You were taught (using one of the most powerful weapons imaginable against a child: shame) that your worth was directly related to your performance. You were judged by your behavior at home and in public, your performance in academics (that all-too-important report card), and your performance in athletics (did they call you a ‘wuss'? a ‘loser'?). If you were involved in the arts, how well did you do in art or music or dance or drama? Were you an exemplary Scout or Guide? How many societies and associations did you belong to? How early did you learn to read? What films have you seen? What degrees do you have after your name? Whom did you marry? How advanced are your children? How much money are you making? How important is your job? Whom do you know? What have you accomplished? Have you accomplished enough???
You've been carefully trained and acculturated and even had it beaten into you that your worth is directly dependent on your performance and your performance will be judged by other people's criteria and that, as a result, other people will always be judging you. In addition, you've been programed so that you believe with every fiber of your being that their judgments actually matter. They set your standards, and all you can do is measure up . . . or not. *Sigh* Don't you find all that totally exhausting?
In Defending Your Life, Daniel had only three judges presiding over his case. I'll bet you that you have a lot more than three passing judgment on you. And don't think that just because some of these judges have died along the way that they're no longer there to issue their opinion on your case: they've just moved inside, and now you can hear their voices critiquing your every move from that little courtroom that takes up space between your ears. Don't you recognize their scolding voices every time you give yourself a good calling-down whenever you mess up? Yes, the voice of parental criticism never really goes away, no matter who that parental authority was in your life or where they may be now. If you listen carefully, you can hear them, even now . . .
I'd like to challenge you right now to bring the members of your judge and jury out into the sunlight. It really helps if you write these things down. So, I suggest that you take a little booklet and golf pencil around with you for a couple of days, and try to write down the names of all the people (living or dead) whose harsh judgment on you you dread. Whom would you really hate to disappoint? Whom do you need to be most careful around? Whom would you least want to have angry with you? Who's got the power to hurt you (emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, or financially)? You might title your list “The Judges over My Life". It doesn't really matter on which side of the midlife transition you may fall right now: everybody to some extent is preoccupied with “Defending Your Life. "
The longer your list grows, the more evident it'll be how unfree and ‘stuck’ you are. I hope you find that you have a short list, because that means you've already got a great deal of your midlife work behind you. You see, one of the big changes as you pass from adulthood into maturity arises from your gaining the ability to tune out the judges. Like Daniel in the movie, at some point or other, you're going to need to stop being overly concerned with accommodation, and start becoming more concerned with living authentically. Trust me, the voices of the prosecuting attorneys who are constantly trying to put you on trial will never go completely silent. Yet, gradually, your capacity for tuning them out and lending a deaf ear to all the voices of condemnation both within and outside of your head, will grow. Incidentally, the Semitic name for the accuser or prosecuting attorney in a court case is: the satan (é¸ÂØ¸ß).
When you pass through the midlife transition, it's not as though you become a law unto yourself. On the contrary, the law of authenticity, the law of purpose and destiny, all cease being something something outside of yourself that you struggle to live up to and take up residence in your heart. When your spirituality (and therefore your morality) moves inwardly, your motto becomes, for the rest of your life ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’ and, in doing that, you are also fulfilling the will of God for you. Let the accusers and judges babble on: the still, small voice of maturity in your heart will very easily drown them out. Never again will you feel the need to be Defending Your Life.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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