In the comment thread of last week’s post, “The art of acceptance,” someone wrote about the harsh criticism she was receiving from a coworker. Within the context of acceptance, she wrote:
I can choose to be in that small quiet room, and believe that someone else’s issue with me does not define me or even describe me, and I can choose to be accepting of the moment, without accepting the condemnation.
I thought that was beautiful and true, and also crazy-frustrating. I don’t know the details of that situation, but I do know what it feels like to be attacked. I’m guessing we all do. Anyone who is brave enough to put their art out into the world, or have an opinion, or publicly stand for something is at risk, and when it happens, when you find yourself the target of someone else’s ugliness, it can be quite devastating.
I’m not talking about simple differences of opinion here, or constructive criticism; that’s the basis of healthy debate, and I’m all for it. I recently posted on Facebook this quote from Anne Lamott’s book Help, Thanks, Wow:
Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth.
Some people objected to Anne Lamott’s (and by extension my) seeming to give the adult bookstore a free pass. One person asked if the items in the bookstore, which invariably degrade women, might cause the very sexism the quote decries. Good point! I argued that it misses the bigger point of the quote though, at least for me, that the greater travesty is a hardened heart, a person who lacks generosity or compassion. You can protest the adult bookstore all you want, but far more important than your righteous indignation is the question of how you’re living your life. Are you choosing kindness? Love? Non-judgment? Compassion?
Someone else objected (humorously) to the word “sin,” in part I’m sure because it’s not a word I often use, what with my heathen tendencies.
I was grateful for both comments. Neither commenter attacked me; they just voiced an alternative line of thought. That’s good. That’s how criticism, discourse, and debate should be.
What infuriates me is the meanness of some people who claim to simply be stating a difference of opinion, or offering a critique (often unsolicited). They invariably say, “I was just being honest,” but honesty rarely requires verbal brutality. I’ve come to believe that the more visceral the attack, the less it is about me and the more it says about the attacker.
When I was writing the Love Essays chronicling 2011, my year of fearless love, I got a Facebook message from a friend (well, I thought we were friends) telling me that she never understood what I meant by fearless love. She said she could never tell how I really felt because my writing amounted to the sentiments contained in a Hallmark greeting card.
Her criticism came out of left field for me; I wrote and deleted a number of responses before deciding that I wouldn’t respond. For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t write at all. Every time I sat down, her words ran noisily through my head, silencing my own. I’d been writing more and more personally over the year or so prior, coming up against the edges of what I was willing to reveal, and her comment made me feel that I’d failed. I doubted everything I wrote, questioned whether it was enough. Could I be more naked? Should I be? I was a mess.
Sometimes it takes a tribe to get past something like that, and I’m grateful for the community of generous souls who rallied to help me. One friend asked, “Would you EVER say something like that to someone? Think of how angry you’d have to be. Clearly, it’s not about you or your writing. It’s about her and her issues.”
I have wise friends, and I’ve come to believe those words of wisdom. I’ve never (before or since) been criticized quite that harshly, but I have had occasion to say to myself, “this is clearly not about me.” I say it when the severity of the response seems out of proportion to the thing that inspired it. I say it, I believe it, and then I move on – writing, doodling, having opinions.
In statistical analysis, before statisticians even begin to interpret their findings, it is not uncommon for them to look at the raw data and eliminate the outliers, numbers that are too high or too low, way out of the normal distribution. I think we should do that too. All opinions are not equal, and the ones that are expressed with malice and assholery matter least of all.