It’s been a while since I’ve posted something on my blog. This was not my plan. But in my own defense against my accusatory self, my life has been unusually full over the past few months. My sons have entered new schools, my wife has begun in earnest a new school program for herself, I’m finishing up a book project and preparing for a Kickstarter launch (stay tuned), and doing my very best to prioritize healthy eating and living practices. All that speaks nothing of my day-job in pastoral ministry which continues, full of joy and frustration, privilege, and very, very heavy weights of responsibility.
Believe it not, however, I think my own tendency toward self-indictment is principle cause for my lack of blog-material production of late. I’m very often my own worst enemy. And that’s the topic of this post: my accusatory self.
A couple months ago, I began writing a piece on despair. I couldn’t perfect it. So, it remains locked on my laptop hard drive. I do hope that it will eventually reach the light of day, but I haven’t yet built the courage to put it out there. At every turn during the writing process, I could hear my inner critic reminding me that that last sentence tapped out on the screen could be interpreted in not-so-flattering ways. I heard its gentle but frantic voice whispering about the few who would take offense at me expressing my thoughts in that particular way. And then, after having re-written it, I heard that troll criticize the new material from the perspective of a hostile community in the opposite extreme.
It’s a curious dynamic.
Precious few of these private voices have ever been spoken to me by others directly (or indirectly). I’m primarily aware of them because of having read the comments (don’t ever read the comments by the way ) on other pieces, or through unbridled conversations in person regarding other people or subjects. Their voices echo and morph in my psyche.
A friend of mine taught publicly this last year on a theme that has great discord among church people. Before the lecture even began, opposition to the presentation began to mount on online message boards. Angry and frightened religiously devout people wrote fanciful conspiracy-theories about the speaker and associated communities of faith. Facebook-grandmas indiscriminately forwarded emails to their tribes. My friend’s best intentions and considerable skill did not save them from attack; and that was only the beginning! Once the material was out in the open, recorded and published for all to see, the attacks began in earnest from other, opposite, perspectives on the spectrum. Many things, from the choice of topic itself, to the speakers’ past, to their credentials, to their race and gender, were brought into focus and thoroughly deconstructed. Before it was all over, the very motive of the speaker, their heart, their intentions, were twisted and interpreted as pure evil. My friend, despite a solid and conscientious attempt at addressing a difficult and contentious topic, had been thoroughly eviscerated from all sides – not self-prophylactically as is the subject of this article, but in the frantic court of public opinion.
It can be terrifying to stand up and say something, anything; to put thoughts to paper or film and post them for the world to see. Even if the critics don’t come calling as they did my colleague, some of us, yours truly included, make sure their voices are felt none the less. Creating in the shadow of self-indictment has been a paralyzing, deconstructive, and obsessive loop for me. It has not been healthy for me or for those I have the privilege of influencing.
"Creating in the shadow of self-indictment has been a paralyzing, deconstructive, and obsessive loop for me."
Now – I could play the victim here. I could finish this article by writing about how terrible those people are who served up oversized helpings of opinion on message boards and blogs. I could write about the anti-social and community-destroying nature of 21st century social media. But I don’t think those tacks would either be constructive or truthful. The fact is that my creative incapacity has far more to do with me than it does with outside forces.
My own story has taught me to make too much use of inner critic. While this dynamic might not be true for everyone, I’m sure I’m not alone. I have experienced very real rejection at certain points in my 36 years, the most hurtful in traumatic ways that were both boundary breaking and therefore outside my control. As a child, adolescent, and even as a young adult, I learned to cope with some of these experiences by exerting control in what little ways I had less. In my mind, I came to believe that the more in control I was over life, the less likely I was to re-experience such painful injuries. Often this hyper-attention translated into me choosing to disengage preventatively: refusing to even try throwing my opinion out or participating in the conversation. My unexamined reasoning held that if I just meekly listen, without taking a position, I can’t be attacked, I can’t be pushed out, I can’t be left behind. Over time, my uber-precaution fed and developed a well-trained inner critic.
In other words, I believe I tend to avoid sticking my neck out there today not because “people on social media are mean” or because of “the trolls,” but because I am only recently learning how to coexist with debate opponents (or downright nasty people) with love in my heart and a skip in my step. I’m only recently developing the skills to be confident in my own identity, my own sense of calling, and in my own convictions – regardless of the push back. I’m only recently learning to allow these to shape my public voice instead of the inner critic.
For those of you who have gone through this process as an adult, you know how challenging it is. But just as disengagement leads into cycles of paralysis, courageous creativity and expression multiplies into cycles of positive action.
I do also have to admit in all this that at times, my critic has (and still does) serve me well. He’s like my body-guard, looking out for me, and trying to protect me. He’s trying to help, truly. And there are many moments I can point to in the past where he, full of anxiety, has pressed me to produce something much better than I initially made. There are moments where his insistence on refinement, harder work, more hours, something like perfection, created something more beautiful than I had originally accepted. It is simply fact that some of my work has been excellent because of this “bouncer” at the door.
And yet, now, as a grown man, I’m beginning to learn that I, as the artist (to keep the metaphor going), hold the creative power in this relationship. It’s my choice. It’s my decision. It’s my risk to take. I’m old enough to know that wisdom is absolutely irreplaceable, even from the inner critic – and also that cycles of immobilized depression are possible in the absence of all gambles.
In the end, I have hope that my experience with the inner critic will lead me not only to produce better material, but even more, to be a more empathetic reader of others’ material as well. I want this voice I’ve honed over the years to serve me positively. I want him to help shape the tone I take when I comment online and the angle I use when in conversation with friends. I don’t always succeed. But at its best, my critic can be a useful guide.
"We, as a society, have the capacity to be charitable...to assume the best...to interpret with generosity and kindness."
In fact, at times I find myself feeling defensive of others who create – like my speaker friend I mentioned above -- but also of those with whom I disagree. Not only did that person’s experience lead me to self-reflect, and self-critique, it also opened up a path of (for right or for wrong) righteous outrage for me. For many of us, especially those like me, it takes courage to put your work out for all to see. I think the act of bravery alone deserves at least a modicum of respect. We, as a society, have the capacity to be charitable in response to opinion shared publicly. We have the capacity to assume the best, even when the execution is off. We have the capacity to interpret with generosity and kindness.
As a writer myself, I certainly long for that from my readers!
Often when I feel this sense of anger rise up in response to a public disembowelment, my mind is drawn to a scene of the 1995 Michael Douglas and Annette Bening film, “The American President.” At one point, Douglas, who plays the president, finds himself in a heavily critical conversation with his chief of staff. I don’t recall the details of the political situation, but it seems that there were no good options for the administration – no set of actions that yielded minimal political or real-life ramifications. In the conversation, the president’s chief of staff is unvarnished in his criticism; it was a moment of truth. The heated exchange grows to a head as Douglas shouts to his friend, “Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats AJ?”
The insinuation is that it’s easy to pick and poke, attack and deconstruct, from a position of having little to lose, from a place of little to no investment. Without “skin in the game” as it were, critique can really fall flat. Unless you’re actively engaging with the issues, tangling with problems, attempting solutions, putting yourself at risk, your criticisms can come across to those at the table as more than a little hollow. In fact, some of the greatest allies for your cause might be the ones you so easily dismiss as evil, deluded, committee automatons.
After having served on a great many committees and leadership boards, I know all too well how those tasked with making decisions agonize about the many, many factors and consequences that go into them. And I have also been privy to the casual and ignorant conversations critiquing those decisions with great force and ostensible authority, but with not an ounce of empathy, and truly without comprehensive understanding. The “cheap seats” might seem like a perfect place from which to be an expert, arm-chair quarterback. But unless you have or are engaged in the issue, your critique is more likely to be myopic at best. In fact, sometimes our inner critic (and by now you might accurately be renaming this as EGO), from the cheap seats, likes to express him or herself simply to feel bigger, more powerful, and more in control.
There is such a thing as injustice. Wrong is wrong. Evil is evil. Sometimes views are expressed or actions performed that simply are not ok. No amount of self-mind-ninjitsu, or insider self-justification, will transform them into constructive or beautiful actions. But I think the list of truly un-just leaders might be shorter than the frantic voices of social media can lead us to think.
It’s super easy to allow our inner critics to condemn what others are doing. I want to be someone who gives the benefit of the doubt – who gives common courtesy – who lives under mercy as a first policy; this for myself as well as for others. I strive to keep my own inner critic in check: granting both me and you with unearned kindness. I want to be quick to listen, quick to grace, quick to curiosity – slow to criticism. I want to be brave and thoughtful, daring and humble, considerate and precise.
May God grant me the courage to give myself grace - even for this imperfect piece. And may he grant you the courage to give grace just the same. May God bless us all in our creative work that pushes the ball forward, and welcomes into reality the Kingdom of God.
For additional reading and reflection on some of this subject matter, I recommend the following:
1. For artists and creators, I’ve recently finished a book by Julia Cameron called “the Artist’s Way.” Many of you will have already heard of it. It’s a classic in the field; I think it’s worth every minute. https://www.amazon.com/Artists-Way-25th-Anniversary/dp/0143129252/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=419VCH8E0Y6KG4KGVDP5
2. Rob Bell’s podcast has been a blessing to me personally. You likely won’t agree with everything he says, but as I’ve outlined above, I think he models the kind of courage our world needs – the willingness to express ourselves in dialogue, without letting those inner voices shut us down prophylactically. His most recent post on “everyone is your teacher” (episode 166) is particularly apt with regards to this post. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-robcast/id956742638?mt=2&i=1000392953150
3. Finally, I’d also recommend a book recommended to me by a good friend. It is really a transcription of a speech given some 20 years ago, but I found the material both touching and challenging. Again, very closely related to the above article. Anthony DeMello’s “Rediscovering Life.” https://www.amazon.com/Rediscovering-Life-Reality-Anthony-Mello/dp/030798494X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507133578&sr=1-1&keywords=rediscovering+life