On Self-Criticism

Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one-one that would do nobody any harm.

In February 1931, Francis Crowley and two of his friends went to a party in New York, sans invitation.  After awhile, some men proceeded to remove them from the party, and in reaction, Crowley pulled out a gun and shot two men before departing.  A warrant went out for his arrest under the charge of attempted murder, and Crowley went into hiding.  Several months later, police found and confronted him, but he shot one of the detectives and got away.  Later, he broke into a house, and shot the owner five times using two guns, giving him the nickname “Two Gun” Crowley.  Just three months after this story began, Crowley was sitting in a parked car with his girl, when a pair of police officers came up and asked him for ID, Crowley drew on the officer and killed one and wounded the other.  The following day, the police surrounded his hideout and fired tear gas and bullets into it, trying to drive him out.  While resisting their efforts to capture him, he wrote: “To whom it may concern, under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one-one that would do nobody any harm.”  It seems crazy, doesn’t it?  How could he believe so earnestly that he could “do nobody any harm” when he had shot several people and killed another?

As crazy as it sounds, you’ve seen this kind of behavior before.  Haven’t you?  Someone you know has done something remarkably foolish, but they can only regard it based on their intent.  The fallout of their actions was not their intent; they had no intention of events unraveling as they did.  So they blind their senses, and tell everyone they did the best they could have.  Sometimes they go as far as saying they did no wrong.  Crowley shot six people and yet he regarded himself as someone who wouldn’t harm nobody.

Al Capone, one of the greatest mobsters of all time, is quoted as saying:

I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping people have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.

Think about that for a moment.  Here’s someone who organized crime, killed police and citizens, and couldn’t fathom why anyone would be hunting him down.

In politics we see this same principle with Rosevelt.  Theodore Rosevelt broke up the Republican party in the early 1900s when he got into a tiff with Taft.  He started the Bull Moose Party and ran against him.  The consequence was that the votes were split and the democrats won.  In the end, Rosevelt could only say: “I don’t see how I could have done any differently from what I have.”  His actions ensured that democratic party would take office as he split the votes of the republicans, but instead of acknowledging that he could only say he did no wrong.  Now I’m not saying that Rosevelt was in the wrong for running against his party, he may very well have been right.  But his intent ensured that someone he felt worse about being in office took office.  The point I’m making here is that doing what you feel is right, may result in something very wrong happening.  (This is also not a commentary on the Woodrow Wilson, who did enact some great changes to this country.)

Many great disasters have come in the wake of some person or another not examining themselves.  Their inability or inaction to judge their own mind and heart and see where they were going wrong led them into peril.  When faced with the self-justification of villains, criminals, and politicians how can we continue down the same path?

It’s not easy to examine ourselves, is it?  In one way or another we’ve all made the mistake of pursuing one goal and totally botching it in the method we pursued.  I know one guy, who wanting to stay in touch with a particularly flaky friend (let’s call him Ben), would call and leave voicemails expressing a desire to talk to the him.  When Ben didn’t return the calls, likely due to the busyness of college, homework, making new friends and life, he added a joking line at the end of voicemail.  That line when something along the lines “Call me back or I’m going to come down there.”  He thought it was particularly funny because he wasn’t a violent sort, and his presence wouldn’t normally be seen as a threat.  And he chuckled to himself thinking about how he might not return the phone call because Ben wished to see him in person.  As time went on, he still received no return call.  His voice mails got sassier and the joke more physical and in the end Ben communicated to a mutual friend, that he had no interest in talking to someone who threatened him.   And that, dear reader, is how I lost my first high school friend.  My joke wasn’t funny, but I didn’t realize it until it was too late.  I certainly analyzed many of my actions at that point in my life, but in regards to Ben I wasn’t analyzing them well enough.

So what’s the solution?  I believe it’s threefold.  1) We must be analyzing our actions and making sure that they are working in the way they are intended and that there is little to no room for them to go wrong. Or as “Mad-Eye” Moody would say:

Vigilance, Constant Vigilance!

2) We must include friends and family in our criticism process.  We must give our trusted allies the freedom and permission to call us out when we err.  Getting self-defensive only serves to further hamper our growth and our ability to effect the changes we want to see in the world.  For the Christian this principle is not only common sense, but a command from God.  Matthew 18:15 states:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

The implication is that there will be times when you need to point out the error of your friends ways.  And the further truth of that, is that there are times you will need to be corrected for wronging your friend.  Each one of us, from time to time, need to be stopped, and pointed back in a proper and good direction.

3) We must acknowledge when we screw up and properly apologize for it.  I’m not talking about saying: “I’m sorry” as those words mean virtually nothing in today’s world.  I’m talking about a full on apology.  Where we admit where we wronged the person, tell them why it was wrong, and earnestly promise to not repeat that behavior.  That threefold apology will mean much more to them than saying “I’m sorry” or worse “I’m sorry you feel that way.” A proper apology also restores a relationship to a better place than it was before.

There is, perhaps, a fourth aspect to this process.  It seems so obvious to me, I didn’t even become aware of its necessity until I pondered how various different people might respond to reading this blog post.  And that is that each person must have a standard to which they are trying to attain.  Without a standard, there is no way to measure success or failure in your day to day interactions and no guide for your friends to use in keeping you accountable.  For the Christian, this standard is Jesus and living a life as perfect as His.  For my non Christian friends, I’d be curious what that standard of living is.  I know you wish to grow and become a better person, but what is the standard by which you measure goodness?  What is the standard by which your friends can hold you accountable and you can measure success or failure and become a better person?

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:38

I’ve been mulling this over for a few years now.  I see people going down the wrong path, and posting about it proudly on facebook or talking about it in social settings.  And I, being only an acquaintance, do not feel I have any place pointing out that their actions are working against their best interests.  It was only when I picked up a book the other day, How to Win Friends and Influence People, that I felt I had to speak out.  The author shares all the stories I listed above and he makes the point that people don’t take criticism well.  If we want to help fix their errant behavior, it is better to get there by asking questions and being gentle than to confront them face to face.  There’s truth in that.  Don’t we find it easier to change if we feel we are the ones that started the thought process ourselves?  But I also think that these stories point to another truth, that if we want to be good and admirable people, we must also be willing to take criticism face to face, and that process begins within.

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