No. 005 - 23 May 2023
Hello friend,

We're all as different as the day is long. Consequently, one person's experience may be just that: one person's experience, and not particularly helpful for another. (This is why research distinguishes "anecdotal evidence" from repeatable, verifiable experimentation or more presumably universal forms of logic or reasoning.)

Today's missive is completely anecdotal. So it may not apply to you at all. You be the judge.

Why today's topic is important to me: I realized in my twenties that I was particularly thin-skinned. Criticism could have a dis-proportionately debilitating effect upon me. Especially if it was unfounded or unfair. And especially if it was framed personally. This was, well, not good. Especially since the things I wanted to research and write on are, it turns out, quite controversial: like non-violence, peacemaking, social justice, reconciliation, militarism, nationalism, and the like.

So, I've been on a quest for 30 years or so to learn to better navigate criticism and critique. I got started thinking about all this recently when a long-time friendly acquaintance at church snubbed me, because she does not  like things I have been teaching in Sunday school class. So my old unhelpful, thin-skinned mental churning began. However, this churning reminded me of helpful wisdom I've learned from some remarkable folks. Perhaps it will be helpful to you, too.

I've geeked out and made it an alphabetical list for you... A, B, C, Da, Di, E, F, G, H, I ... for good pedagogy's sake.


Ten Ways to Frame Critique
1. Another's Anger may be their gateway to change...  One day a friend sat on my front porch with me, and said: "I hear people running you down, all angry with you about something you've said, and then six months later they are arguing for the very thing that made them mad six months earlier." This helped me immensely, and it fits with some educational theories which purport that learning is often accompanied by emotional response: if someone is angry, it may be that they are on the verge of learning something new. But my getting defensive, or reacting in anger, may distract them from learning what they may need to learn.

2. Bitter or Better. In a past interview with former TN Governor, Bill Haslam, we talked about criticism. He said to me that "criticism will either make us bitter or better. Which of those it is depends upon me."

3. Consider the source. So said another past No Small Endeavor guest, Russell Moore: himself no stranger to a great deal of public castigation, most famously being targeted by Donald Trump. Regarding "consider the source," he said that he would imagine a good friend under fire from the critic. If he would tell that friend that he ought not take the critic seriously, then he would take the same approach himself. If, on the other hand, he would tell his friend that the critic is knowledgeable, well-intentioned, a person of integrity, and so forth, then he would tell himself carefully to consider the criticism. Amy Grant once told me that this was her first line of questioning to herself: was there any truth in the criticism?  If so, seek first to address that in herself.  If not, then seek simply to let it go. (And related to "bitter or better":  Russell also told me a story about a famous New Testament scholar who's work was viciously critiqued by another scholar--as scholars are sometimes wont to do. The criticism undid that New Testament scholar. He died bitter, and an alcoholic. And yet, it was his work that has stood the test of time, much better known than the critic's work...)

4. Data. "I treat it like data," said Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist who indicates that she regularly receives death threats in response to her work. She knows what she knows about climate science, death threats notwithstanding. So what to do with such threats? They become a new sort of data about the way people are responding, hearing, reacting.

5. Dichotomy of Control. This is an element of Stoic philosophy, popularized in Reinhold Niebuhr's famed "serenity prayer." There are things we can control, and things we cannot. Don't waste time on things you cannot control. Focus on what  you can control: like showing up well prepared, having something thoughtful and helpful to say, with a good spirit and kind heart, wanting to contribute to the common good.

6Expect CritiqueBen Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, and a provocative social activist, said this when I asked him how he deals with critique:  "I expect critique."  He continued to this effect, "look, if I say something and no one reacts, then it probably did not need to be said. If I get critique, then it is something that needed to be said."

7. Friends. Brian McLaren said to this effect: one needs trustworthy friends who really know you, with whom one can process particularly painful criticism, and can help you see what is or is not helpful about it.

8. God, love of. At one level, the question of dealing with critique, challenge, despair, comes down to a question of loves. This was the point made by the Gospel of John: some were afraid to confess, profess their belief, because of fear of social alienation: "for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God" (Jn 12:43, NRSV).  This is a choice we must make. Last week in an interview out in California, I asked comedian Rainn Wilson, best known for his portrayal of beet-farmer, paper-salesman Dwight Shrute of The Office, about expressing his faith in Hollywood. He shared that his theism has not been good for his career; but it's what he cares about. (Stay tuned for that episode coming this summer!)

9. Half of it: "they don't know the half of it," is another thing Bill Haslam told me,  laughing. Just remember that when you're being criticized, he said, that the critic doesn't know even half of all they could be criticizing you for.

10. Interrogate it. This is one approach Kristin DuMez indicated she often employs:  she's a teacher, researcher,  academician: so when someone levels a critique at her work, she seeks to engage it dispassionately, and takes the arguments seriously as one would a critique from another scholar.


Get criticized
So, the challenge for you this week, and harkening back to the NSE Notebook 003, which challenged you to do something every day that makes you uncomfortable: risk getting critiqued. Speak up for what you think is true. This is a form of courage: which means it is a skill that we all need in order to live any sort of life that is worth living. Then see which of the ten above help you (and let me know if they do!)

  • As you may know already, I'm a long-time fan of Dag Hammarskjöld's book Markings. Lots of beautiful wisdom there. In one passage, related to the theme of today's topic, he says:

"Matu­ri­ty: among oth­er things, a new lack of self-con­scious­ness — the kind you can only attain when you have become entire­ly indif­fer­ent to your­self through an absolute assent to your fate. He who has placed him­self in God’s hands stands free vis-á-vis men: he is entire­ly at his ease with them, because he has grant­ed them the right to judge."

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