Are You Stoning Your Prophets? Part 2

Last week, I wrote about handling criticism. I promised a second installment. Here it is.

Years ago I read a story, the source of which I’ve now forgotten, about a young acolyte who approaches an old saint and asks how he can be made perfect. The old man says, “Tomorrow, go down to the graveyard, choose any burial plot, and spend the say praising whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“Tomorrow,” the old man says, “return to the same grave, only this time spend the day cursing whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“The first day you stood over the grave and gushed praised, did the grave’s inhabitant respond?”

“No.”

“And today, when you spewed curses over the same grave, did he respond?”

“No.”

“My son, when you can do likewise with the praises and curses of man, you shall be perfect.”

I only half agree.

Frankly, I’m not dead yet, and the praises and curses of man stir in me strong emotion, and immediate reaction. I think for all of us, while breath remains in us, we will find it so. Until our dying day, our emotions, to some extent, will ride the waves of what others think of us. Maturity consists, not in being dead to others’ opinions, but in shaping our response to their praise and curses so that we gain maximum benefit from both, and do minimum damage.

But here’s what I’m tempted to do: to cancel one with the other. I tend to use praise to cancel criticism, or (especially when I’m raw and vulnerable) criticism to cancel praise. In the first scenario, I think, “All my critics are wrong, because all my fans say I’m wonderful.” Or, alternately, I think, “All my supporters are wrong, because all my critics say I’m horrible.”

Neither is true.

I have formula I use:

Discount by at least 20% the praises of a supporter, and discount by at least 80% the curses of an enemy.

Both your fans and your foes have a skewed perception of you. You supporters, by definition, over-estimate your wisdom, goodness, insight, prowess, and the like. Your enemies, by definition, underestimate these things. The top layer of a supporter’s praise is usually pure flattery. The bottom layer of an enemy’s criticism is always thick bile.

But there are two voices you should especially pay attention to:

1) A compliment from someone who routinely criticizes you

2) A criticism from someone who routinely encourages you

When a chronic critic says “Thanks” or “Well done,” I pay attention. And when a habitual exhorter says “What was that?” or “That’s not up to par,” I pay attention. I think both these voices approach something close to true reality.

Two quick stories to illustrate.

In my first church, the person who least wanted me to be their pastor – who voted against my coming, who came out guns blazing on every idea I proposed, who muttered and griped about my preaching – stood up as I announced my resignation, confessed to all that he never wanted me as his pastor, but wanted to be the first to say he wished I would stay.

That had my full attention.

On the other side, when a friend who’s always exhorted and defended me recently said he was disappointed in me, that got my full attention.

I’m not dead yet, and not yet made perfect. But between now and then, I want to get the most benefit out of both praise and criticism, and do the least damage.

How have you handled both praise and criticism? Does my formula – discount a supporter’s praise by at least 20%, and an enemy’s curses by at least 80% – sound accurate to you? What percentages would you use?

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