Yes, a headline caught me and reeled me in: “Missing Persons Case Solved! Woman Missing Since 1974 Found Living In Texas.” The article is so short it resists summary, but basically: a 28-year-old woman had her 3rd child in Indiana in 1974. She signed over her three children to her parents, and took off. Her family hasn’t seen her since. But now, in 2016, she has been found.
Some of the people who re-posted this article included comments about the missing woman, vitriolic and blaming—how could a mother abandon her children, these strangers asked. And why would her daughter, who has requested contact, want anything to do with this wicked woman? The police obviously foresaw this type of response, because the press release states, “[she] did not commit any crime by leaving her home in 1974, and still reserves the right to remain anonymous.” Let me say that again: the missing woman did not commit any crime. But we all know there will be a virtual witch hunt for her, a digital effigy tried, convicted, and burned without mercy.
I’m a Buddhist, and “nonjudging” is an essential part of my philosophy, a word I must repeat to silence the self-critical voice inside more often than the one turned outward. But I also know many Christians who avoid judging, taking to heart the Bible’s exhortation to “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I would argue that not judging others is, in addition to being morally admirable, actually good for us psychologically. It also makes logical sense. Imagine some possible scenarios about the missing woman:
…Perhaps she was married to an abusive husband or involved with an abusive boyfriend. 1 in 3 women today, in 2016, will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. What was that statistic in 1974? What was the awareness of domestic violence then? What were the laws protecting women, if any? What if the missing woman left because she could see no other option? Perhaps the abusive man threatened to kill her. Perhaps he tried to control her by harming the children or the pets. Perhaps she thought they would be safer with her parents, and with her—the object of his obsession—far, far away from his manipulation and his violence.
…Maybe she was gay. Maybe she knew that, or figured it out, and knew there was absolutely no place for her to be herself where she was. She had to leave her family, her children, anyone who knew her. Remember, it was 1974. There was no “It gets better” campaign, no gay characters on television. No GLBT hotline. She was dying inside, taught to hate herself. She would have been dead sooner or later, likely by her own hand, if she had stayed. And because she hated herself and, if her secret were out, she would have been deemed an unfit mother anyway, she left. She went away and became someone else and tried to love and be loved, which we all want, which we all seek.
…Or perhaps she was struggling with mental illness, voices that told her to harm her children or extreme postpartum depression, and she knew she had to get away before she hurt someone. Maybe she was persuaded to leave by someone who had psychological power over her. Maybe she never contacted her family after a letter in 1975 because she felt so deeply guilty that she did not think she could survive seeing them. Maybe when she landed somewhere else she felt useful, for the first time in her life.
The point is: we don’t know. What we do know is that societal pressures specific to a woman’s experience could certainly have contributed to what happened. We do know that a man who abandoned his children in 1974 (or even now) would not be called the same vicious names. We know that each of us has done or at least come close to doing desperate things, things we are ashamed of, things we regret.
The missing woman is all of us. If you’re old enough to have been alive in 1974, as I am, then the missing woman just might be the child or young person you were then. How might your life have been different if the 42 intervening years between then and now were radically changed? What if the sexism that shapes the lives of people of all genders had been—dare I even imagine it?—eradicated in those 42 years? Who would you be now if you could have been shaped by something your now-self wishes desperately your then-self could have known?
That last question is too hard, I know. But one thing I would tell my young self, I would tell everyone: be compassionate. Practice nonjudging, of others and of yourself. I say “practice” because none of us is so enlightened that we never succumb to judgment. But we can practice nonjudging, and with practice, we can get better.