The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Judgement of Craig Newell

(This is a reprint from 2008 & 2010. Was thinking of Mr. Newell the other day.)

A few weeks ago I received the news that my old coach and math teacher, Craig Newell, had died. I haven’t written about it till now because I’ve been thinking of him since then. He was an odd man, spare and lean, with the whippet body of a greyhound, and he had a way of cocking his head when he looked at you which was inevitably parodied every year in the seniors annual play.

I spent five years around him, in high school, a boarder in an all boys school. It was an excellent school, well run, with fair rules and no brutality, but I hated the place and was miserable most of the time, though still happier there than I would have been at home. Mr. Newell was my grade 9 math teacher, but I didn’t really make a connection with him till a few months into the year.

The standard punishment at school for infractions was what I like to call brutal exercise. What it was exactly varied by the master or prefect who was in charge of the punishment detail, but one that particularly sticks out in my mind is being told to hold heavy wooden chairs over your head and then made to run around the quadrangle till you collapsed. Pushups and situps featured as well, and through most of my teen years I could easily do over a hundred of each. We often used to joke that the strap would have been easier and less painful.

I don’t remember what I did to get on that particular punishment detail, but since I didn’t feel like doing brutal exercise I talked the master whom I’d offended into letting me run a cross country race happening the next day, which was being supervised by Mr. Newell. Like most folks, the master hated long-distance running and figured it was worse than calisthenics. I found long-distance running easy. So I reported to Mr. Newell and ran the race. I had never run a race before, didn’t run more than twice a year in the school’s mandatory runs, and having been told that if I didn’t put in a credible effort, it wouldn’t count, came in about half way in the pack of runners. Mr. Newell pulled me aside, asked if I’d ever raced before or practiced, and on hearing I hadn’t, suggested I try out for the team.

Now if this was a Hollywood movie, I’d have gone on to be a star. That wasn’t the case, but I did join the team, run track and cross-country most years and do well enough to stay on the team.

More to the point, I found I liked running and I started running a lot more than the 2 days a week the team officially met. And if it was a weekday, when school ended I’d swing past Mr. Newell’s office and see if he wanted to go for a run too. As often as not, he would, and we’d run for 30 or 40 minutes. Usually they weren’t hard runs, we’d pace ourselves just below the point where speech becomes unpleasant, and while we ran we’d talk.

Unlike a lot of coaches, Mr. Newell wasn’t also the math teacher as a way to give him something to do—he’d studied math and philosophy in university and he had an excellent and searching mind. He’d often give me nuggets like the Barber’s paradox to chew over, or we’d discuss other philosophical questions like how we know what we know, or what moral behaviour is.

Mr. Newell didn’t have a lot of answers. He handled me pretty much with the Socratic method. But he did have one question he always asked, that came to define him in my mind. When I’d express disapproval of something someone had done, or someone’s beliefs, he’d ask:

“Why do you feel it necessary to not approve?”

And he’d step it back:

“Have they harmed you?” “Have they harmed anyone else?” “Why do you think they did that?” “Why do they believe what they believe?” “Given what they believe, is what they did reasonable?”

And most important of all he’d ask “Does your disapproval do anything to them? Does it do anything to you? Can you affect this situation?”

Mr. Newell was very interested in understanding what people did and why. He wasn’t very interested in judging them. And even when he did judge someone, usually because it was his job, he shied violently away from being judgemental.

Mr. Newell didn’t let his emotions, didn’t let a need to be judgemental and to feel superior to other people, get in the way of his understanding of other people.

Most people, I have come to believe, have a strong need to judge others. To quickly assign  “good” or “bad” labels. And once they’ve done so the thinking, the understanding and the empathy dies. Once someone is evil, or bad, or immoral they aren’t like us. (Because most of us don’t have the honesty to admit our own evil.) At that point, empathy dies. And without empathy there is no understanding—if you cannot walk a mile in someone else’s shoes you cannot understand them. (And, I suppose I should point out that understanding one’s enemies is the best way to defeat them. Which is why the US loses so much, because it refuses to understand those it fights.)

Now none of this is to say that Mr. Newell thought you should never, ever, judge. He was, after all, a teacher. He was in a job where you have to judge. But he felt you should judge carefully, only as far as the evidence goes, and not let it spill over into your other judgements of the people involved. I have come to simplify this as learning how to “judge without being judgemental”. More than that it implies that moral disapproval, moral judgements, in particular, should be used sparingly and that once used shouldn’t spill over. An example would be that many people (correctly) see Osama Bin Laden as a mass murderer and therefore evil. But that spills over, and they become unwilling to grant that he is an extremely brave man who led troops from the front, that he is a very intelligent man whose plans have been more effective than those of most leaders he’s been fighting, or that he, say, loves his family and is genuinely pious, generous and god-fearing. Yet the evidence is that he’s all of those things.

When you judge too quickly, you get things wrong. When you judge too broadly, you blind yourself to what a person actually is.

And really, why do we love to judge so much? Because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In our contempt for those we judge we can pretend that we’re nothing like them, that we aren’t complicit in the same evils, that we have never harbored the same thoughts, or perhaps even acted on them. Being judgemental makes us feel good about ourselves but the price is that it blinds us, both to those we judge, and to ourselves. In writing off understanding others, we write off understanding ourselves.

And ultimately, that is the lesson I learned from Mr. Newell in those hundreds of hours of running.

  • Always understand before judging
  • Judge sparingly. Is it really necessary to judge this person? Do their beliefs or actions harm anyone but themselves? Is it your place to judge?
  • When you must judge, judge without being judgemental.
  • Listen to what your judgement says about you, more than what it says about others.
  • Satisfaction in condemning another is a danger sign that you may be using the condemnation to blind yourself, to yourself.
  • Don’t judge large, judge small and specific.

I don’t know what comes after this life, but if there is an afterlife, if there is a judging of men and women, I hope that Mr. Newell is judged himself as he judged others. And may it be laid on his scale, that he was kind to a scared and lonely teenager when almost no one else was, and saw the good in that boy that few others did.


The Totalizing Principle Of Profit, and the Death of the Sacred


Open Thread


  1. DupinTM

    “I don’t know what comes after this life, but if there is an afterlife, if there is a judging of men and women, I hope that Mr. Newell is judged himself as he judged others. And may it be laid on his scale, that he was kind to a scared and lonely teenager when almost no one else was, and saw the good in that boy that few others did.”

    There was no one else, and please, take on that mantle. Thank you, father, for taking the time to delineate your own boundaries.

  2. Tina

    He sounds like a wonderful man and I wished I would had the privilege of meeting him, I’m glad you did. Wisdom comes from the most unexpected people in the most unexpected ways.

  3. Astrid

    Thank you for this.

  4. Dan Lynch

    Excellent, thought provoking essay, Ian. I like it when people make me think.

    As for why I judge, I tend to judge people who have harmed me. Now, as MLK pointed out, it is good to be able to see things from your adversary’s point of view, to be able to understand why they are harming you. But the fact remains that there are harmful people in this world and I’m not going to have warm fuzzy feelings about them.

    Stepping back even further, we might ask “what is it about our SOCIETY that leads people to want to harm others?” Well, the U.S. is a highly unequal, highly insecure society. Everyone is competing for a comfortable place in society, which means knocking the other guy out of your way.

  5. Trinity

    This is excellent, and very Daoist. I wish I had a teacher like Mr. Newell, but when I did teach, I tried to be that teacher. As a first year, I was given all the malcontents. Some of them told me that in their entire public school experience, no one had ever treated them with any respect whatsoever. Needless to say, I never had any problems with them, except for one notable child who did scare me, as in it was just really unsettling to be around him for unknown reasons.

    I agree with Dan on everything, but especially that we are set up by our culture to consider anyone outside our immediate family as either a threat or a competitor, because of unrestrained capitalism and rising economic inequality. Inside my family, unfortunately, this was also the case. My narcissist mom made sure we were all competing for the limited resources in a very large family.

    This is how they both protect themselves and their position of influence as well as collect all the rewards (thrive) so that they can continue to protect themselves and maintain their influence.

  6. Hugh

    The barber’s paradox reminds me of the original self-reference paradox of Epimenides of Knossos (in Crete) who asserted that all Cretans are liars. So if he is telling the truth, he’s lying. And if he is lying, he’s telling the truth. I had a good math teacher in high school, and I only later learned how rare that is. And in college I had a philosophy professor who had a strong background in formal logic.

  7. bruce wilder

    What Bertrand Russell said of the Barber’s Paradox is worth quoting: “. . . the whole form of words is just noise without meaning.”

    I have noticed, as the floodtide of information (and disinformation) rises and rises, people demand to know, “. . . but what does it mean?” I think it is a strategy to short-circuit the impossible to satisfy inherent demand to process the contradictory torrent. If I know who wears the Black Hat and who, the White, I can stop any further effort to understand. It is justification to be stupid and think myself righteous, all wrapped up, with a bow.

    When one compares that economizing strategy to the demands of an idealized judgement, it is sadly wanting: ideally what is wanted is a full and accurate assessment, the false separated as chaff, the true grain distilled in verification. (Come on, admit you did not see that metaphor comin’ at ya!)

    I am old enough that I was made to read Ruth Benedict, the eminent anthropologist, argue that “science” requires the suspension of judgement, in a relativistic ethic. Meaning requires context, she argued.

    I do not agree with Benedict’s relativism. I concede that meaning requires context and context requires the informationally demanding verification of fact. I would even argue (probably against poor Ian) that ethics (as opposed to a contradistinct morality) is always embedded in the context of social and political institutions. Justice, though (in my mind at least) owes a debt to a transcendant morality.

    That is a long-winded way of saying I think it best to suspend judgment in favor of curiosity. Learn more, say I. I rarely have enough information to feel confident in (snap) judgments of my own or others. But, I cannot conceive of judgment not being ultimately the most important thing. Otherwise, what does it mean?

  8. bruce wilder

    Somehow the above relections made me think of this famous quotation, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

    And, then I remembered that was a preface to a justification for usury.


    People like to believe. I rail against the gaslighting that was Russiagate, but what is religion, if not the will to believe in the unseen as prime mover?

    I sometimes make the point that argument in politics is less like the proofs of Euclid than the suggestions of hypnosis. Narrative and mechanism are in a titanic battle for the mind of man, the political, tribal animal.

    (Omigod that was pretentious twaddle!)

  9. Hugh

    Ethics/morality is about how we should act in a society. So it is always a part of social structures. The real question is whose morality gets embedded in them. The US Constitution was sold as We the People, but it was written by the rich for the rich, and a lot of those rich were slave owners. We continue to live with the effects of their, not our, morality.

  10. Hugh

    “If I am not for myself… etc.” comes from the rabbi Hillel, a major Talmudic scholar whose life overlapped the first years of Jesus. Like Jesus, he emphasized the precept of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” His “If I am not for myself” saying is an exhortation to pursue knowledge. You can find an early reference to this in The Biblical Repository and Classical Review “The Condition and Belief of the Jews at the Time of the Coming of Christ (1839).

  11. bruce wilder

    Hypocrisy makes the world go ‘round.

    According to some.

    I would argue with good evidence that the Founding Fathers, as it were, were not of one mind or one opinion, and such opinions as might have been grown and harvested in later generations might have had something to do with later events.

  12. Hugh

    Opinions are one thing. The Constitution, the foundational law of the land, is another. It was written to divvy up power among the Haves and keep it out of the hands of the Have-nots.

  13. someofparts

    Russell Means says that from the point of view of indigenous people, capitalism and communism are two sides of the same coin. The idea that people are put on this earth to toil deserves to be questioned, and maybe that’s how we find our way back to a world where sanctity can still be found.

  14. Ché Pasa

    Speaking of judgement….

    Interesting encounter yesterday with a Zen priest to whom I told the story of sitting zazen last week on a log on the beach at Carmel, California, immersed in sand, sea, and sky, and surrounded by All That Money, and wondering how those people came upon or acquired that wealth and what they’re doing with it besides ostentatious display and mistreating the help.

    Came the response from the Zen priest: “I know Carmel very well. I would refrain from judging those people too harshly. For one thing, we don’t know where their money came from nor can we be sure what they’re doing with it. I can tell you one thing: They suffer just as we do, they struggle with pain and loss and heartache the same as the rest of us. Even with all their wealth, don’t think they’re so much different than you and me. They aren’t.”


    It’s pretty much a parallel to Craig Newell’s teaching and Ian’s lessons from it. I’ve been sitting with it for quite some time as this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the precept on restraint of judgement. We don’t know. And because we don’t know, and we can’t, our judgement of another is at best limited, constrained by our own preconceptions, and is potentially very wrong.

    Better to judge actions, but people not so much.

    We just don’t know.

  15. Watt4Bob

    I did some re-reading concerning Zen in this last year, and one of the things that stood out this time was a quotation concerning consciousness, and discrimination.


    “To discriminate is evidence of consciousness. Not to discriminate is evidence of wisdom.”

    I took it to mean discrimination is a natural operation of the mind, but that, like all operations of the mind, it can be influenced by a number of methods to operate less reflexively.

    I feel like it has only been relatively recently that I became aware that I was no longer interested in the things that others hated, and only wanted to hear about the things about which they were enthusiastic.

  16. Astrid

    Judgment seems to be instinctual. In our natural state, humans have to develop the ability to quickly execute decisive actions to hunt down the antelope and evade the lion and decide whether to fight or join forces with Bob in the next cave before Bob makes the decision for both. There is no time or resources for drawing up decision trees or investigate all the evidence. You go with your gut, even though its formed with imperfect information. Guilt or regret over actions is costly and gets in the way of survival.

    Judging carefully and slowly, or not judging at all, is something that has to be taught and conditioned. The current faux red/blue tribalism and media environment internationally misdirects our original instincts into hating each other. It’s amazingly effective. But to what higher purposes, if any?

  17. Astrid

    How do the rich feel? I guess I know some people who can conceivably afford to live in Carmel, and a few who can afford to live “very well” there. I do think money changes people and not generally for the better. At the very least, they think protectively of their money and guard their social relations. They use their money to subtly control people or they withhold giving support because they are afraid of distorting their relationships, usually some combination of both. Sometimes it leads to people who spend more than my mortgage on cars to dicker over splitting dinner bills.

    Life for the rich, from my perch, do resemble Curb Your Enthusiasm a lot.

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