I was recently listening to Catholic psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi's program on Ave Maria Radio when I had one of those "Ah" moments. You know what I mean. Once in awhile you have a little epiphany, and some piece in the puzzle of life suddenly clicks into place. That day Dr. Ray was talking about discerning criticism.
He said that most of the criticism that we get from family and friends arises because we are not doing something the way they would do it. Most conflict is simply a matter of differences in the way we do things, rather than truly being a moral issue. This is a game changer for me. This makes perfect sense. Simple as the idea is, I think it presents a fundamental key for living free.
In my experience, criticism of others is largely about control. A person in my life is not doing things the way I think they should, and negative thoughts rise up within me. Thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to actions. People will argue that feelings are just feelings, and we can't control how we feel. This ultimately leads to the belief that other people are responsible for how we feel, so we then have no responsibility for the actions which follow from our feelings. But the truth is, we failed to guard our thoughts. We let them ride a runaway train. We have not cultivated self-discipline.
If I take the time to practice detachment and to stop and think, then I can ask myself, is this really a moral issue? Is this person doing something to cause serious harm to himself or others? Dr. Ray said that most of the time, conflict occurs not because the other person has done something wrong, but because they haven't done what you would do. They don't think/act/dress/parent/eat/sleep/worship/style their hair, etc., the way you think they ought. So you step in to correct them. Even in a clear case of wrong doing, we often do not approach our family member or friend, or strangers for that matter, with charity and grace.
Most often criticism of others is unwarranted. And even if it is, we don't have the ability to intervene with lovingkindness. We can't do any good for another if we can't approach her with a loving, nonjudgmental attitude. We only add to the cycle of pain and conflict. And we ruin our relationships.
We have to stop trying to control other people. It takes too much energy and leads to madness. It also robs us of too much time and energy when we try to defend ourselves from criticism. The first step to freedom, then, is to recognize when the criticism we get from other people is unwarranted and to not internalize it. We are living differently than they would live, and that's all there is to it. They don't understand why you are homeschooling or sending your kids to Montessori school, why you are a vegetarian or why you eat a paleo diet, why you dress like a gypsy or dye your hair blue, or why you don't cover your greys; why you left your high-paying corporate job to work with the poor in India, why you aren't married or why you married a starving artist instead of the rich boy they thought was perfect for you; or why you use cloth diapers instead of disposable. They don't get it, and you don't have to explain it. They don't get to fix you.
I think this is a deeper subject than it may first appear to be. When I pondered Dr. Ray's words, I considered that an ingrained sense of guilt for just being who we are could be at the root of these problems. Maybe it's an "inner child" thing. Most of us have grown up under an authoritarian paradigm. We have been controlled by parents, teachers and other school administrators, the government, peer pressure, and bosses at work. A healthy respect for authority is important, but the root of that authority must come from God. In other words, we obey God because he works for our own good, because he loves us radically. If the authority figure fails to reflect the charity which is at the heart of the Divine nature, if authority is abused, then trust in authority breaks down.
We walk around feeling guilty for being who were are. This is why I think Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy is so brilliant. She saw clearly that we have no right to encroach upon the personality of a child. She saw children as persons, and she put the primacy of education upon nurturing the child's spirit.
Sometimes we do the wrong thing. We cause ourselves and others real harm. We need to own up to mistakes and make amends. We need to forgive ourselves and others. But we must correct this imbalance of misguided criticism. If we really care about other people, we have to guard our tongues, which can only come from being discerning in our thoughts so that our feelings don't run amok and cause chaos. We have to stop being so petty. There are real problems in the world, incomprehensible evils. Do I really need to get into an uproar because my neighbor wears jeans to church, talks too loudly, or joins the circus? If I criticize something because I don't "believe" in it or just don't like it, I have to ask myself if it's really any of my business.
In about six years my daughter will come of age, and her choices will be her own. I will no longer have authority over her. If I abuse my parental authority during these upcoming crucial teen years, or if I behave as if I still had authority over her life once she is grown, I could lose one of the most important relationships I will ever have. I have to practice letting her be her own person now, even as I have the authority and responsibility to guide her and teach her in the way she should go.
This is a topic that I think deserves a lot more exploration. What are your thoughts?