Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Long life: I regret the years I’ve wasted judging people by appearances

The recent funeral of an acquaintance made me realise how superficial judgments have affected my friendships
May 1, 2024

I am often asked what, in my long life, I most regret. Usually, I dismiss regret as a pointless emotion that I have no time for, but recently I was made resoundingly aware of how much pleasure I have been deprived of by a bad lifelong habit: judging people by appearances. 

For many years, I lived on the same street as a woman who had a congenital condition physically affecting her whole body; it seemed a miracle she could still get about. She used to be accompanied by her dapper, unassuming husband. When he died, I expected her to go into care but, for years after, she seemed to struggle on alone. I would occasionally have a short, polite conversation with her about the weather or some acting work I had done, which she always appeared to know about. When she died a few months ago, I decided to go to the remembrance service held in her honour at the local church, as a mark of—I must admit—slightly condescending respect.

It was a stunning revelation.

This object of my patronising pity had lived a life full of adventure, creativity, profound love and joy—one that made mine look like a boring walk in the park. Barbara had travelled the world, supported the arts, pursued endless causes and campaigns, written exquisite poetry, done beautiful needlework and loved her neighbours and her church with energetic zeal. She had adored her gentle, self-effacing husband, as expressed in her choice of a poem for her memorial. It was “Touched by an Angel”, by Maya Angelou—a beautiful summary of love transforming a lost life.

Only rarely did she show sadness to her friend the vicar, but when her beloved Hugh died, she howled with grief, “How long must I go on without him?” But go on she did, for years, despite being in constant pain. She told the vicar that she viewed her disability as a blessing, as it meant strangers would offer help, thus she could get to know them.

The music and poems she had chosen, and the tributes from friends and colleagues, made me realise that I would have loved to have been her friend. She was adventurous, artistic, gifted, knowledgeable and above all fun. I had merely seen an object of pity.

What else are we missing in life by making glib judgements based on others’ appearances? We pretend to believe in equality, but people with Eton voices and smoothness still get the best jobs. I am afraid I un-wokely encourage youngsters I work with to dial down their accents when applying for a job, especially if they’re from Birmingham. Or, like me, King’s Cross. 

We discriminate on the basis of age as well. Young people might seem naive but it is a disaster that our political system still ignores them. If 16-year-olds had had a say in Brexit we would not have landed them with such a god-awful mess to deal with. And they are much more au fait than the rest of us with the constant technological change that defines modern life. We are in a new industrial revolution that requires a whole different approach to living, which shocks us oldies. We could learn so much from them. 

But hold on—I too am ageist.

What else are we missing in life by making glib judgements?

A few days ago, a friend collapsed in my house. We could not rouse him from some kind of coma, and called 999. As it was a bank holiday, it understandably took about an hour and a half before help arrived. The sight of the ambulance flooded me with relief, until the paramedics walked in and I saw that they were two slight girls who looked about 12 years old. My first reaction was one of dread and a little anger, which I now realise was based on ageism and sexism. 

The youngsters took instant control of the situation, performing tests on complicated apparatuses and heaving quite a weighty man around with extraordinary efficiency. Not only that—they treated him with respect. None of that tiresome, “Come on lovey, give a little cough for me.” More, “Okay sir, can you explain what happened?” When he couldn’t, they kept him politely in the picture as we filled in the facts. They didn’t talk over his head or ignore him because he was old, which often happens. 

I had expected mature, strong, male operators, but these young women were faultlessly professional. How many more misjudgements have I made in my life? How many friendships missed? From now on I intend to look behind the mask. I will bear in mind the proverb: “Do not judge by appearances. A rich heart may be under a poor coat”. Better still—I may stop judging altogether.