Criticism: Finding A Balance
July 23, 2020
IN THIS ISSUE
Criticism: Finding A Balance
In this world, the only way we can completely escape criticism is to do nothing of significance at all. This is impossible if we want to live a meaningful life, but still the desire to escape is understandable. After all, it’s never easy to hear negative feedback. In fact, it can be an intensely painful experience, even if the person giving it claims “it’s nothing personal!”
That’s why, although criticism has the potential to be a galvanizing force, it’s very difficult to feel gratitude for it when it’s presented to us. However, as we are coming closer to Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgement, it’s a perfect time to weigh up what we can improve on as well as what we’re doing well. In this way, receiving criticism can be helpful for our self-development, even if it’s hard to hear.
What about giving criticism? Well, most of us find that a little easier! Giving criticism can be a manifestation of our ego: whether we realize it or not, when we decide to criticize another, we are portraying ourselves as superior to that person in some way. However, this doesn’t mean that the act of criticism is intrinsically wrong. When we have information that could help someone, it is a dereliction of our spiritual duty to ignore problems for the sake of avoiding a tough conversation. Nevertheless, there is an art to giving criticism, and to improve our own approach we should consider the example of Moses and the Israelites.
The book of Devarim, the first portion of the book of Deuteronomy, consists of a retelling of the events that befell the Israelites, with an emphasis on mistakes made and opportunities missed. Moses, just one month before his death, seems to intentionally crush the spirit of the Israelites with his harsh words. This seems very strange. He has had so much time to make this criticism, so why do so now? Actually, his decision to hold back is further evidence that he was a great leader. Previously, he had managed to correct problems without resorting to criticism. However, knowing he was about to leave the world, he realized it was his duty to shake his people up and awaken them to their potential before he was gone.
Through his criticism, Moses gave the gift of appreciation to his people. During the 40 years that the Creator carried the Israelites through the desert, they had become oblivious to the scale of the miracles that were happening around them. Moses’ criticism made them aware of what they had, which inspired their gratitude. His reasons for criticizing were righteous: given that he was about to die, he made his comments from a sincere place of desiring positive change. The action was not undertaken for his benefit.
This is important! Before we vocalize our critical ideas, we must first confirm our motivation with ourselves: are we saying these difficult things because we want to make improvements, or do we simply want to shame others or glorify ourselves? This will tell us whether it’s correct to speak up or not.
It is also worth asking ourselves whether we are able to wait — to hold back and criticize at the right moment — like Moses did. If not, our motivation may be the expression of anger rather than the correction of actions. Before we criticize , we should remember that we too are imperfect. Often, the Divine puts people in our lives to make mistakes not so we can correct them but so we can learn alongside them. With that in mind, criticism should always come from a humble place; it should not be a finger-pointing exercise. Instead, we should aim to ask questions or make suggestions so that the error is revealed without hostility or arrogance.
We can learn some practical tips for expressing criticism from Moses’ example. Firstly, he did not single anyone out in particular or humiliate them in public. Instead, he talked about the mistakes in more general terms, which meant that the Israelites did not feel personally attacked by his ideas. Secondly, he reminded them that they could enjoy a better life if they listened to and acted upon his criticism. He appealed to their sense of hope and showed them the benefits of making a change. Because he avoided targeting individuals and because he spoke of a positive untapped potential, the hearts of the Israelites remained open to his words.
Think about the last time you received criticism and how it felt. Could the conversation have been improved by applying these methods? Would you have been more receptive to feedback expressed in this way? Then let this knowledge inform your approach the next time you give criticism.
For us to learn from the criticism we receive, our hearts must be open to the idea that we have an incredible and infinite potential to be better.
And if we want our criticism to make a positive change, it must come from a place of love.