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Getting Help From Criticism

J. R. Miller, 1894

Perfection in life and character, should be the aim of every Christian. Our prayer should ever be, to be fashioned into spotless beauty. No matter what the cost may be, we should never shrink from anything which will teach us a new lesson, or put a new touch of loveliness into our character.

We get our lessons from many teachers. We read in books, fair lines which set holy tasks of attainment for us. We see in other lives, lovely things which inspire in us noble longings. We learn by experience, and we grow by exercise. We may get many a lesson, too, from those among whom we live. People ought to be a means of grace to us. Mere contact of life with life—is refining and stimulating. "Iron sharpens iron—so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend."

The world is not always friendly to us. It is not disposed always to pat us on the back, or to pet and praise us. One of the first things a young man learns, when he pushes out from his own home, where everybody dotes on him—is that he must submit to criticism and opposition. Not all he does receives commendation. But this very condition is healthful. Our growth is much more wholesome in such an atmosphere, than where we have only adulation and praise.

We ought to get profit from criticism. Two pairs of eyes should see more than one. None of us have all the wisdom there is in the world. However wise any of us may be, there are others who know some things better than we know them, and who can make valuable and helpful suggestions to us—at least concerning some points of our work. The shoemaker never could have painted the picture—but he could criticize the buckle when he stood before the canvas which the great artist had covered with his noble creations; and the artist was wise enough to welcome the criticism and quickly amend his picture, to make it correct. Of course the shoemaker knows more about shoes, and the tailor or the dressmaker more about clothes, and the furniture-maker more about furniture, than the artist does. The criticisms of these artisans on the things in their own special lines, ought to be of great value to the artist, and he would be a very foolish painter who would sneer at their suggestions and refuse to profit by them.

The same is true in other things besides are. No one's knowledge is really universal. None of us know more than a few fragments of the great mass of knowledge. There are some things somebody else knows better than you do, however wide your range of learning may be. There are very humble people who could give you suggestions well worth taking on certain matters concerning which they have more correct knowledge than you have. If you wish to make your work perfect you most condescend to take hints and information from anyone and everyone who may be ready to give it to you.

It is true, also, that others can see faults and imperfections in us—which we ourselves cannot see. We are too closely identified with our own life and work to be unprejudiced observers or just critics. We can never make the most and the best of our life, if we refuse to be taught by other than ourselves. A really self-made man is very poorly made, because he is the product of only one man's thought. The strong things in his own individuality are likely to be emphasized to such a degree that they become idiosyncrasies, while on other sides his character is left defective. The best-made man is the one who in his formative years has the benefit of wholesome criticism. His life is developed on all sides. Faults are corrected. His nature is restrained at the points where the tendency is to overgrowth, while points of weakness are strengthened. We all need, not only as a part of our education, but in all our life and work—the corrective influence of the opinions and suggestions of others.

But in order to get profit from criticism, we must relate ourselves to it in a sympathetic and receptive way. We must be ready to hear and give hospitable thought to the things that others may say of us and of what we are doing. Some people are only hurt, never helped, by criticism, even when it is most sincere. They regard it always as unkindly—and meet it with a bitter feeling. They resent it, from whatever source it may come, and in whatever form—as something impertinent. They regard it as unfriendly, as a personal assault against which they must defend themselves. They seem to think of their own life as something fenced about by such sanctities, that no other person can with propriety offer even a suggestion concerning anything that is theirs, unless it is in the way of commendation. They have such opinions of the infallibility of their own judgment, and the flawless excellence of their own performance, that it seems never to occur to them as a possibility, that the judgment of others might add further wisdom, or point out anything better. So they utterly refuse to accept criticism, however kindly, or any suggestion which looks to anything different from what they have done.

We all know people of this kind. So long as others will compliment them on their work, they give respectful attention and are pleased; but the moment a criticism is made, however slight, or even the question whether something else would not be an improvement is asked, they are offended. They regard as an enemy anyone who even intimates disapproval; or who hints, however delicately, that this or that might be otherwise.

It is hard to maintain cordial relations of friendship with such people, for no one cares to be forbidden to express an opinion which is not an echo of another's. Not many people will take the trouble to keep a lock on the door of their lips all the while, for fear of offending a self-conceited friend. Subsequently, one who rejects and resents all criticism, cuts himself off from one of the best means of growth and improvement. He is no longer teachable, and, therefore, is no longer a learner. He would rather keep his faults, than be humbled by being told of them in order to have them corrected. So he pays no heed to what any person has to say about his work, and gets no benefit whatever from the opinions and judgments of others.

Such a spirit is very unwise. Infinitely better is it, that we keep ourselves always ready to receive instruction from every source. We are not making the most of our life—if we are not eager to do our best in whatever we do, and to make constant progress in our doings. In order to do this, we must continually be made aware of the imperfections of our performances, that we may correct them. No doubt it hurts our pride to be told of our faults—but we would better let the pain work amendment, than work resentment. Really, we ought to be thankful to anyone who shows us a blemish in our life, which we then can have removed. No friend is truer and kinder to us—than he who does this, for he helps us to grow into nobler and more beautiful character.

Of course there are different ways of pointing out a fault. One person does it bluntly and harshly, almost rudely. Another will find a way to make us aware of our faults without causing us any felling of humiliation. Doubtless it is more pleasant to have our correction come in this gentle way. It is also the more Christian way to give it. Great wisdom is required in those who would point out faults in others. They need deep love in their own heart, that they may truly seek the good of those in whom they detect the flaws or errors, and not criticize in a spirit of exultation. Too many take delight in discovering faults in other people and in pointing them out. Others do it only when they are in anger, blurting out their sharp criticisms in fits of bad temper. We should all seek to possess the spirit of Christ, who was most patient and gentle in telling his friends wherein they failed.

Harm is done ofttimes, by the lack of this spirit in those whose duty it is to teach others. Paul enjoins fathers not to provoke their children to anger, lest they be discouraged. There are parents who are continually telling their children of their faults, as if their whole existence were a dreary and impertinent mistake, and as if parents can fulfill their duty to their children only by continually nagging at them and scolding them.

Those who are anointed to train and teach the young, have a tremendous responsibility for the wise and loving exercise of the power that is theirs. We should never criticize or correct—but in love. If we find ourselves in anger or cherishing any bitter, unkind, or resentful feeling, as we are about to point out an error or a mistake in another person, or in the other's work—we would better be silent and not speak—until we can speak in love. Only when our heart is full of love, are we fit to judge another, or to tell him of his faults.

But while this is the Christian way for all who would make criticisms of others, it is true also, that however we learn of our faults, however ungentle and unsympathetic the person may be who makes us aware of them—we would better accept the correction in a humble, loving way and profit by it. Perhaps few of us hear the honest truth about ourselves until someone grows angry with us, and blurts it out in bitter words. It may be an enemy who says the severe thing about us—or it may be someone who is base and unworthy of respect; but whoever it may be, we would better ask whether there may not be some truth in the criticism, and if there is—then set ourselves to correct our deficiency. In whatever way we are made aware of a fault, we ought to be grateful for the fact; for the discovery gives us an opportunity to rise to a better, nobler life, or to a higher and finer achievement.

There are people whose criticisms are not such as can profit us. It is easy to find fault, even with the noblest work. Then there are those who are instinctive fault-finders, regarding it as their privilege, almost their duty—to give an opinion on every subject which comes before them—and to offer some criticism on every piece of work that they see. Their opinions, however, are usually valueless, and ofttimes it requires much patience to receive them graciously, without showing irritation. But even in such cases, when compelled to listen to unjust and harsh criticisms from those who know nothing whatever of the matters concerning which they speak so authoritatively, we would do well to receive all criticisms and suggestions in good temper and without impatience.

An interesting story of Michael Angelo is related, which illustrates the wise way of treating even ignorant, meddlesome, and impertinent criticism. When the artist's great statue of David was placed for the first time in the Plaza in Florence, all the people were hushed in wonder before its noble majesty—all except Soderinni. This man looked at the statue from different points of view with a wise, critical air, and then suggested that the nose was a little too long. The great sculptor listened quietly to the suggestion, and taking his chisel and mallet, he set a ladder against the stature, in order to reach the face, and climbed up, carrying a little marble dust in his hand. Then he seemed to be working carefully upon the objectionable feature, as if changing it to suit his critic's taste, letting the marble dust fall as he wrought. When he came down Soderinni again looked at the figure, now from this point of view and then from that, at last expressing entire approval. His suggestion had been accepted, as he supposed, and he was satisfied.

The story furnishes a good illustration of a great deal of fault-finding to which we must listen. It is unintelligent and valueless. But it cannot be restrained. There is not subject under heaven on which these wise people do not claim to have a right to express an opinion, and there is no work so perfect that they cannot point out where it is faulty and might be improved. They are awed by no greatness. Such criticisms are worthy only of contempt, and such critics do not deserve courteous attention. But it is better that we treat them with patience. It helps at least in our own self-discipline, and it is the nobler way.

This, then, is the lesson—that we should not resent criticism whether it be made in a kindly or in an unkindly way; that we should be eager and willing to learn from anyone, since even the humblest and most ignorant man knows something better than we do, and is able to be our teacher at some point; that the truth always should be welcomed—especially the truth about ourselves, that which affects our own life and work—however it may wound our pride and humble us, or however its manner of coming to us may hurt us; and that the moment we learn of anything that is not beautiful in us—we should seek its correction. Thus alone, can we ever reach the best things in character, or in achievement.

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