"Those who refrain from negative criticism grow in patience, learn to love their enemies, stifle the instinct to always demand their rights, overcome pettiness and preserve their intimacy with God..." Tyler Milligan/Unsplash

Glen Argan: This piece of advice has stuck

  • February 15, 2020

When I was a young journalist, I joined the Volunteers, a group associated with the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate (OMMI), a secular institute, and began to take part in their regular discussion groups. Early on, we discussed the five elements of the OMMI spirituality. 

The second pillar is absence of criticism. I was dumbstruck by this. “What is wrong with criticism?” I asked. “I’m a journalist and part of my job is to criticize what is wrong in the world. How can we make a better world if we don’t criticize its current evils?”

What made the OMMI advice sting even more was that the next pillar of their spirituality was to stop complaining.

Most of the good advice we get in life simply washes over us. We might regard it as a good idea, but then forget it. Or maybe we do try to put it into effect, but after a while, our zeal fades and life returns to what it was previously.

For me, this piece of advice stuck. Almost 40 years later, I am still trying to eliminate my propensity for negative criticism. (Not totally though, something I will get to later.) It has become the work of a lifetime. I still find myself making snide remarks and posting disparaging comments on social media. At least the social media comments can be deleted.

That long-ago discussion started an ongoing process. It is one of the few signs in my life that a person, namely me, can change their habits for the better.

Destructive criticism can undermine or destroy the good name of another, usually without allowing that person the right of self-defence. It can deeply wound a person. Or, it can bully a person into silence as well as intimidating others from standing for what is right out of fear of also being slandered. Harsh criticism also undermines the unity of a group.

Perhaps the primary victim of such criticism is the one who criticizes. That person nurtures their pride and becomes someone others seek to avoid. Fr. Louis-Marie Parent, founder of the OMMIs, wrote that the critic is ruled by their passions and is incapable of offering or receiving divine love. “The demolisher rushes from one deception to another, his mouth twisted in bitterness” (In the Footsteps of Jesus).

Those who refrain from negative criticism grow in patience, learn to love their enemies, stifle the instinct to always demand their rights, overcome pettiness and preserve their intimacy with God, Parent wrote. 

One of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” He cites the example of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was inspired by other inmates in the Gulag Archipelago who acted with nobility despite persecution and dehumanizing circumstances. Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his own life, asking himself when and how he had compromised his conscience. He resolved to rid himself of those traits which pleased himself but not others.

He not only changed his life, but courageously wrote the story of the Gulag and, by doing so, helped to bring down the Soviet Empire.

Solzhenitsyn’s example tells of the positive power of criticism rooted in integrity. His truth-telling did not arise out of bitterness. Nor did his resolve to examine his own life, rather than blame others for his cruel fate, make him a Pollyanna. He did not become a nice guy, a pushover for forces of oppression.

His criticism arose out of a Christian faith through which he became a humble servant of God and lover of his neighbour. Solzhenitsyn’s faith and integrity made his criticism a force for good which upended the power of evil.

My early consternation about making the absence of criticism a spiritual principle was not entirely misplaced. The prophets were critics; Jesus, too, was a critic who overturned tables and did not make Himself beloved of the religious compromisers of His day.

Still, if you think you’re a prophet, you’re probably not. Well, if you’re baptized, you do share in Jesus’ prophetic ministry. But you diminish that share by going negative. You can increase your share by replacing ego with humility, by trying to understand your neighbour rather than thinking or saying nasty things about them and by exalting their accomplishments rather than touting your own.

Criticism can be prophetic, but only if it grows out of a ruthless effort to overcome one’s own pride and negativity.

(Argan is program co-ordinator of Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta.)

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