This weekend I went to see the Frida Kahlo exhibition at London’s stunning Victoria and Albert Museum. On display, along side many of her artworks, was a collection of her belongings including photos, clothing, personal items and medical devices discovered in her family home in 2004 – 50 years after her death.
In all honesty, all I knew about Frida before this was that she was a colourful, unconventional, Mexican artist with a magnificent monobrow. Before I went, I watched the Frieda movie (the Salma Hayek one on Amazon is well worth a look!) and learned that she survived polio as a child and as a teen was in a horrific bus crash which shattered her pelvis. This period was both the beginning of her career as a painter and of a life of chronic pain and countless surgeries to correct the damage.
Part of the exhibition contained some of the contraptions used to hold her spine in place and I can only really describe them as leather cages. Seeing these placed along side the beautiful ostentatious clothing she used to detract from her physical deficits was quite a shocking contrast. Her life was one of extremes from her lively passion and promiscuity to the physical pain and raw honest darkness of some of her art.
Understanding a little about her back story suddenly made her art make sense to me. She went from being this women I had just put in the crazy artistic type box to this a strong, determined, creative, passionate, brave heroine of her own life, and role model for women in an age where they were meant to be seen and not heard, and yes, a little crazy!
This got me thinking about how we so often default to judging people (both positively and negatively) by our own back stories instead of thinking about them in context of their own life story.
As someone who lived with chronic pain for years but fortunate enough that surgery fixed it, I have a small understanding of the impact it can have on your personality. I never knew how much it affected my mood and confidence until the pain was gone. Someone who didn’t know my circumstances and who maybe met me on a bad day and found me to be quiet would have just been likely to categorise me as shy or standoffish. They would be judging me from their own perspective, without knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, knowledge even I didn’t have!
To use a more everyday example, I had an argument with someone recently about that energy switching site. He was saying that if people couldn’t be bothered to find the best deal then they deserved to pay more. To him, going on the internet and doing some research was as simple as making a cup of tea. He struggled to comprehend that for some people it is an overwhelming confusing prospect, that some don’t have easy access to the internet or are intimidated to make that phone call. He was judging everyone else by his own abilities because we are our first and default point of reference.
Have you ever said about another person “I just don’t understand how they could do that”?
Whether it’s something you admire or despise, you cannot understand them because you are judging them from your own life experience. The question itself demonstrates that. So if you do want to understand it, then you need to find out what their motivations are, you need to get to know their story, to walk in their shoes. This can serve both as a way to learn from someone you might want to emulate and to show compassion to someone whose behaviour you find challenging.
It’s too easy to grab on to one bit of information about someone and generalise about everything else based on that single piece of evidence. Remember the old fable about what an elephant is like? It is not it’s ears or tail or trunk or tusks, it is all that and so much more.
So my message, and note-to-self for this week is this.
Before you make a judgement (if you have to make one at all), stop and think about the person or behaviour you are judging as well as your own pre-exisiting biases.
Are you seeing the bigger picture or are you looking through the pin hole lens of your own experiences, beliefs and values? Are you remembering that these things vary from person to person and just maybe you could learn something from the differences? If not than can you just let them do them whilst you do you?
What would Frida do?