Bring on the Criticism

August 10, 2021

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Once in a golden hour
I cast to earth a seed.
Up there came a flower,
The people said, a weed.
—Alfred Lord Tennyson

Years ago, in a fit of pique over perceived mistreatment by the press, President John Kennedy purportedly likened those spouting the criticism to a baseball player. 

[Once] there was a legendary baseball player who always played flawlessly. He consistently hit when at bat and was never thrown out at first. When on base he never failed to score. As a fielder, he never dropped a ball and he threw with unerring accuracy. He ran swiftly and played gracefully. In fact, he would have been one of the all-time greats except for one thing—no one could ever persuade him to put down his beer and hot dog and come out of the press box to play.

In a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, President Theodore Roosevelt was less oblique about the chattering classes:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

After her hair turned ghost white in the wake of her three-year-old daughter’s death from leukemia, First Lady Barbara Bush refused to dye it when pressured to do so for the sake of her politically promising husband’s image. “People who worry about their hair all the time, frankly, are boring,” she tutted.

And even the unflappable Justice Antonin Scalia, when asked by C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb about his reaction to E.J. Dionne’s call for his resignation, wondered innocently, “Who?” Laughing, Brian Lamb answered, “A columnist for the Washington Post.” The slightest wry smile curled the end of Scalia’s lips, “Oh,” his eyes twinkled. “I don’t know that.” 

It is no surprise that no one likes criticism. No one. Sources of criticism are legion and its forms are varied. Family and friends, colleagues and teammates, enemies and strangers alike may, at one point or another, criticize us. And whether it is intentional or inadvertent, clunky or subtle, fully frontal or passive-aggressive, criticism always feels the same. It stings. It deflates. It throws us off balance. We are emotional creatures. Just when we should be confident and steadfast in our aims and methods, we can be swayed or misled by unjust criticism. Criticism often surprises us. Even when we should be able to see it from a mile away, it always lands roughly as if we never knew it was coming. Criticism leaves us a bit dizzy and disoriented, shaking our head with cartoon stars swirling about. And then, in its tumultuous wake, we brood darkly about “what ifs, I oughttas, and next times.”

No one likes criticism, but sometimes we need it. My father was famous (in my eyes) for repeatedly reminding me that “The truth hurts,” especially when I was enamored with some delicious, comfortable falsehood. Somerset Maugham once observed, “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.” We need criticism (constructive, that is) because sometimes we are simply wrong. Sometimes we are on an errant path. Other times we have a good approach, but not the best approach. Criticism that sets us straight may be painful, but only in the way that labor pains bring about new and wondrous life. 

But how are we to discern between unjust criticism and constructive criticism? Well, don’t rely on how it feels. It always stings. But consider its source and its intent. Is your critic earnest? Does the criticism make sense? Is it relevant to you and your plans? Does it offer counsel on how to improve? The best criticism is honest, charitable, and formative. If criticism lacks truth, love, or relevance, cast it away—it’s not worth your time. 

While the criticism can make sense, it can still hurt. What can one do to grow from the criticism without falling prey to discouragement or resentment?

  • Save the kernel, throw away the chaff.  What helpful insight can I learn from this criticism? Let the emotional response fade away and the wisdom materialize. Good points are still good points even if poorly delivered or from your worst enemy.
  • If it is worth it, do it. G.K. Chesterton puckishly reminded, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” This means that even if you are lousy at something you feel called to do, press on and become better. Advising a young poet to be patient with the process of improving, Rainier Maria Rilke counseled, “Everything must be carried to term before it is born. . . . Your doubts can become a good quality if you school them.” Often, being bad for a time is the price you pay to become good.
  • Don’t be self-conscious. Frankly, people are much more self-absorbed than most people realize. They are not spending inordinate amounts of time thinking about you; they are thinking about themselves. Thomas Edison when questioned about his serial failure in creating a light bulb purportedly said, “I have not failed 700 times. I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways how not to build a lightbulb.” Epictetus insisted, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.” Remember the goal and forget the noise.
  • Never stop taking good risks. John Shedd observed, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Good risks help you to grow and arrive at the fullness of who you are called to be. We are not meant to be tepid souls who merely survive. We are, in fact, called to greatness.
  • Smile. Winston Churchill said, “I like a man who grins when he fights.” We are meant to be vigorous  and joyful. Criticism will always be with us. So be it. Illegitimi non carborundum—Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

A wise thinker once quipped, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Nonsense.

Bring on the criticism. 

After all, we are called to greatness.

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