The Courtroom of the Self

Bad things can happen when we’re judge, jury, prosecutor, and defendant

The Courtroom of the Self
We tend to judge ourselves harshly for mistakes, real and perceived, that we've made in the past, making it important we learn to forgive ourselves, learn from the mistake, and move forward. (Fei Meng)
Jeff Minick
On a recent livestream, “America’s Labor Crisis,” co-host Mike Rowe commented, “The evidence demands a verdict.” He was discussing the workforce, but his words, sharp and hard as flint, hit me on a different level. What verdict does the evidence of our own lives yield?

The day winds down, and some of us land in a courtroom of the mind. Did I put in a full day’s work? How did I miss that deadline? Did I come across as rude to that customer on the phone? How could I possibly forget to call Mom on her birthday?

Sometimes, when our conscience charges us with graver crimes, the court never takes a recess. Was it my fault our marriage ended? Why didn’t I repair the rift and visit Dad before he died? Why do I spend night after night all alone watching good-for-nothing TV shows and nursing a drink?

A lot of us, I suspect, habitually recollect our wrongs and mistakes, both the misdemeanors and the felonies. We review the evidence, pronounce ourselves guilty as charged, and add another stone to the prison wall of regret that we’ve built for ourselves.

Meanwhile, our society has for years stressed the importance of self-esteem. In a 2018 study, titled “Does a narcissism epidemic exist in modern Western societies?” the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, reported that “The endorsement rate for the statement ‘I am an important person’ has increased from 12 percent in 1963 to 77–80 percent in 1992 in adolescents.”

Though well-intended, this therapeutic movement has produced its own problems. Despite this push to boost the ego, here’s the strange thing. Most of the adults I’ve known, young and old, and many of the teens I taught over the decades, always seemed much more inclined to self-criticism and doubt than to marching under the “I am special” banner. In other words, they’re the ones likely to enter that courtroom of the mind and come away laden with guilt.

Believe me, I know the feeling. Like many readers, I’ve spent my share of time on that witness stand.

Yet, let’s reconsider that declaration, “The evidence demands a verdict.” It sounds ominous, but only if we restrict the evidence to our failures. If all the evidence demands a verdict, then we should necessarily look at our triumphs as well as at our defeats, the good we’ve done as well as the bad.

Maybe you’ve lost your business because of some terrible decisions. You can convict yourself of all sorts of foolhardy mistakes and hang your head in shame, but what about the big-picture you? Do you have a roof over your head and food on the shelves? Do you have friends who take pleasure in your company? A spouse who loves you? Are your children loving and reasonably happy? If so, then no matter what else, you’ve done something right.

It’s all too easy to let the negatives drag us into the gutter while the positives go up in smoke. It’s then that our lives resemble the nightly news. The negatives snatch our attention, just as they do for a television audience; the positive news rarely appears.

The wise among us keep their equilibrium intact. They acknowledge mistakes and wrongs but never forget to be grateful for the good in their lives. They weigh all the evidence before rendering a final judgment about themselves. They understand and practice the old adage “balance is everything.”

We deserve a fair and balanced trial. The next time we stand in that courtroom of the self, let’s make sure that when Lady Justice takes up her scales, she weighs the good in us as well as the bad, our virtues as well as our vices and mistakes.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.