Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Criticizing Those We Love

Some people play a cunning game with those they love. The game is called, “I am only saying this because I love you”, and then they damn the person with their criticism of him or her.

“I am only saying this because I love you: You should not read thick books because boys don’t like girls who read thick books. You want boys to like you, don’t you?”

“I am only saying this because I love you: You must accept Jesus as your savior or you will go to hell.”

“I am only saying this because I love you: You shouldn’t spend time playing basketball. Basketball is for wimps. Football is for men.”

Almost all of us know someone who plays the game of, “I am only saying this because I love you.” We might even play the game ourselves because we were taught to play it by our parents, our siblings, our spouse, or someone else. It is very difficult to break a habit, isn’t it? Especially when those around you have the same habit.

Whether we play that game or not, most of know – deeply know – that it’s not real love speaking when someone plays that game. The person who is playing that game might kid themselves, but even they usually know on some level that they are not being authentic when they say, “I am only telling you this because I love you.”

What do you do if someone plays that game with you?

You try to put as much distance between them and you as you can, don’t you? But what if that’s not possible? What if they’re your parent? Or, your spouse? What do you do if you cannot physically avoid someone who plays that game? When we cannot physically distance ourselves from someone, most of us will try to psychologically distance ourselves from that person, and we have many ways of doing that.

I am not concerned here with most of those ways. I want to focus on just one of them. Last night I came across an interesting blog on which someone was discussing this very problem of love and criticism. Something they said reminded me of one way many of us psychologically distance ourselves. They defined love as, “I understand you without judgment”.

That’s an interesting statement. If we look closely at it, we see it is a direct and forceful contradiction of the “I am only saying this because I love you” game. By insisting that love is understanding someone without judging them we knock the wind out of that game, don’t we? We expose it for what it is. We show how it lacks real love.

Yet, is it completely true that love is understanding someone without judging them? You’ll notice I asked if it were completely true. For there is a great deal of truth in the statement, and my only quibble with it is that it might not be the complete truth. So, to put the question a bit differently, is it at all possible to criticize someone out of love?

If we are serious about answering that question, then perhaps we should begin by asking ourselves what love is. Specifically, is love just a feeling, an emotion? Or, is it more than an emotion?

I think genuine love is more than an emotion. It is as much a way of looking, a perspective, a way of seeing, as it is a feeling. When we love someone, we see them very differently than when we don’t love that person. Sometimes we say we see their soul, or their spirit; their inner self or their true nature. Whatever we call it, love has a tendency to reveal to us what is authentic in another person. Or, to slightly paraphrase Iris Murdock, love is the difficult recognition that someone besides our self is real.

Yet, love is more than that, isn’t it? It is also the unconditional acceptance of the real in another person. That is of their real, authentic self.

So, is it at all possible to criticize someone while at the same time unconditionally accepting them?

At the least, that would seem paradoxical. But let’s quickly resolve the paradox. When we unconditionally accept and love what is authentic in another person, we can still criticize what is inauthentic without thereby in any way changing the fact that we unconditionally accept and love what is authentic in them.

To put it differently, we might decently criticize them for not being true to themselves. For instance, if a girl put aside her love of reading because she was afraid that boys would not like her if she read thick books, we might point out the folly of that decision to her and encourage her to continue reading. Again, if a friend ignored her normally sound reason in order to believe in God out of fear of hell, we might point out how that was a betrayal of herself and encourage her to return to her senses. Or, again, if a boy gave up the sport he loved and excelled at in order to please his father we might point out to him how lame that was, and encourage him to pursue his excellence. In short, our criticisms would be encouragements to be true to oneself.

If I am right about this, then loving someone certainly does not preclude us from at times criticizing them when they fail to be true to themselves. If I’m wrong about this, then I shall fetch myself another cup of coffee and re-think the whole thing, for it’s early in the morning as I write this, and it seems quite possible to me that I am not yet awake enough to write knowingly about such things.

11 comments:

Loren said...

As a parent, I can't quite imagine not criticizing an older child if your experience tells you that they are going to get hurt if they continue doing what they're doing, or even that they're going to hurt someone else.

Heck, I can't even imagine not being self-critical when I fail to be the person I really want to be, when I lose my temper or let a bad day make me say something I wouldn't normally say.

Of course, that's quite different than laying a guilt trip on someone and making them carry an unnecessary psychological burden.

Paul said...

Thank you for a helpful critique, Loren! I see the points you make as qualifying and elaborating on what I was trying to get at in the post.

After all, if we criticize an older child for doing something that might harm them, we are basically doing the same thing as protecting them -- which is an affirmation of their self. That is, we are being true to them with our criticism.

It's when criticisms devalue and demean the other person that I have a problem with them. At that point, they are no longer basically affirming the person, and we are no longer being true to them as a person.

Thank you for your comments!

david said...

I'm glad the post I made about "sharing the love" got you thinking.

I think this suggestion, of "non-judgement" as an understanding of love, is (as any definition of such a vast concept) always a little wanting. But it is a direction that I think is insightful.

The heart "knows" in a contextual modality, that doesn't need intellectual or rational evaluation. The heart "understands" from the view of relational wisdom.

None of us are "absolute" beings , in fact nothing is "absolute", everything is a process. Love reveals that when we unify with another, in any respect ,we are touching our core being, and it feels right. That core being is the "oneness" that we all share and are processes in.

Paul said...

Thank you, David, both for getting me thinking last night (I love to be inspired) and for dropping by to comment here!

I'm not sure I quite understand what you mean by the following and I'm hoping you will elaborate on it:

"The heart "knows" in a contextual modality, that doesn't need intellectual or rational evaluation. The heart "understands" from the view of relational wisdom."

Moving on, I very much agree with you that none of us are absolute beings, and your insight that we are all processes rings like the bell of profoundity to me.

Sometimes, that's hard for us in the West to see because our language has that quaint little word "to be", which implies a state more than a process. Yet, not only the experiences of the mystics, but science too tells us we are processes.

By the way, I'm linking to your very interesting blog in my sidelinks.

jacquie4000 said...

There is a difference in protecting the ones you love from harm in life and Criticizing them.

If I tell my son Not to Walk home alone at night from Church, always be with other people, ( I say this because I love you and don't want to see you hurt)That is fine.

If I tell him You really should not date that girl, no one likes her in school. ( I am saying this because I love you and I want you to be popular.) I am criticizing someone who he choses to like and maybe I am more worried about how people will view me not my son. If he is o.k. with it then I should not be so critical.

Many people are critical of people they love in a sense that they are really worried about themselves, not the other person.

Paul said...

Thank you for that very insightful post, Jacquie! I completely agree with you, but I am especially interested in this observation of yours:

"Many people are critical of people they love in a sense that they are really worried about themselves, not the other person."

I've often seen the same thing myself. It seems to me that comes from possesiveness.

david said...

This "contextual modality" is the notion of taking "everything into consideration" in a non-intellectual way.

When we use our limited intellect to judge, we don't consider every piece of context or actions that make up the "process" of our loved one. Our intellectual minds take a particular view and it necessarily limited. The heart is always tapped into the universal context of all actions, it is beyond thought, beyond judgement.

We experience this all the time, that contextual modality comes to us as "go with your gut" or "what does your heart tell you".

I appreciate the link and made one back.

laurie said...

Hi Paul,

Besides the obvious issue of creating shame and blame when criticizing another, it recently occured to me that judging another, whether we call the motivation 'love' or 'concern' or whatever, is actually transferring the responsibility from that person to oneself. In other words, it is taking something that does not belong to you. I have become convinced that judgement has no part in unconditional love. But in this fallen world we also fall short of this perfect love. We are all fragile and we need to hold each other gently.

laurie/luna

Paul said...

Hi Laurie!

I am so glad to see you!

I agree that judging is taking responsiblity for another person. This might be to some extent acceptable when the other person is our child, but what if they are a fellow adult?

I'm delighted you dropped by and I hope you drop by often. May I ask why you don't start up your blog again and post more?

laurie said...

Hi paul, Delighted to have found your blog. I'll be sure to visit your cafe frequently (as it is known far and wide how well you brew electrons).

I post in my blog every once in a while. I just put in a couple of new posts. It's not a philosophical blog like yours or Brendan's, just my little musings and whatever happens to be on top for me at the time. I have fun with it. Cheers!

Paul said...

I like your blog, Laurie, and I'm going to add a link to it in my sidebar.