Criticism of Advice for Young Missions Participants, continued

My past several posts have suffered a bit from what psychologists call priming, or the “don’t think about pink elephants” affect. If a leader has seen a lot of people react according to a set pattern (and in this case, they construct a situation wherein those people will self-select as representative of the group), they may want to give a set of suggestions for how to deal with that reaction pattern. They do this by assuming the pattern, and then making their suggestions. This presents some difficulties for the person who’s trying to follow their instructions, especially at a point before the pattern would have manifested itself. Most relevant to my previous posts, is that they are now primed with exactly those parts of that pattern which are likely to be destructive (or the leader wouldn’t have to warn participants about them). The first affect of hearing the suggestion “don’t expect too much from others,” may well be to imagine reasons why you would be expected to expect too much from others; to figure out why this advice seemed necessary and relevant. After all, there are a lot of unhelpful ways to process something. Why didn’t they tell me not to blow off the seriousness of this occasion? Why didn’t they recommend a way to talk through any serious personal dissonance I encounter with their program? Why not suggest that if I start getting anxiously obsessive over experiential processing procedures, it’d be a good idea to go for a long walk? Because that’s my pattern, not the officially recognized one.

As it happens, not only is the template reaction pattern not my own, but mine tends to interact therewith in just the wrong way. For instance, I tend to imagine that family and friends won’t much care to hear what I have to say, that it’s not worth processing my experience into a form that’s both honest and presentable, and that I’m likely to bore them with all my introvert processing stuff. If I were writing suggestions for someone with this pattern, I would give nearly opposite advice: I would tell him that enough people are interested in missions for it to be worth your time and effort to put together a short but presentable talk, essay, and slideshow, and to ask at your church for an opportunity to show them to people and engage in a short conversation about missions and the state of the country you visited. I would tell him that it’s good for people to learn about different places, only try not to be too heavy handed with personal stuff.

Or, to take another example, if someone like me hears “guard your heart against any attitude of criticism, judging, etc,” what they will hear, if they are not really careful, is something more like your concerns are meaningless and will not be respected. Ok, perhaps not that, but I do think it’s important to be a bit careful here, because, well, there’s criticism, and there’s criticism. I was raised with a sort of classical understanding of criticism: the kind we mean when we say that someone is a book or movie critic. There may be critics of that kind who just rag on things, but they’re not the good ones. The good ones seek to understand and enlighten the object of their criticism. This, right now, is criticism in that sense. Now, whether or not this kind of criticism is characteristic of saints (apparently it’s not; apparently they have stellar noetic vision, and know what to accept or reject in their own minds and hearts without having to criticize it), I’m not a saint in that sense (whether or not I am in the protestant sense), and so, to me, to not criticize something means to not think about it very carefully. And to not think about something very carefully means either to consider it unimportant and not worth engaging with, or to accept or reject it haphazardly and leave it gnawing at my subconscious for who knows how long after. The inability to engage in creative criticism at an Orthodox camp I worked at one summer has my brain in knots whenever I think of it even to this day (and that was four years ago!).

It’s not precisely that I don’t know what they mean (or at least, I have a good guess what they mean), or even that I don’t consider that good advice, so far as it goes. It’s just that… even in the case of criticism of the other kind, if someone says “it’s been really cold lately, so I’ve been tired a lot,” they probably just want you to acknowledge their discomfort. And that’s it. Really, just that. If you tell them that they’re engaging in a spirit of criticism, they’re probably going to become paranoid: probably about telling you about what they’re actually experiencing. It doesn’t matter that saints just praise God all the time and don’t think about the weather. Most of aren’t saints yet, and it’s a good idea to be patient with us.

In the case of a person like me, perhaps I would say: develop enough critical awareness of your own reactions for you to not be threatened by different ways of doing things, and to articulate your reservations clearly and succinctly to your leader, should it prove a source of stress. That voice is coming from a lot of experiences in youth events, and sometimes other places as well, wherein I had been happy, glad, or joyful about something, or could have been, but the message of the environment I was in was that my kind of joy isn’t good enough; introvert joy isn’t good enough, because it’s too quiet. It’s inferior because “fun” activities can drain it really fast. If we’re modeling a Christian community for these young people, it’s important for them to see that there are ways to be a part of what’s going on, and supportive of each other, without pretending that joy and gratitude must always be loud and excited. In other words, I have found that the solution to most of what has really upset me about Christian events lies precisely in accurate judgement of the situation one is engaged in (not people, but I do believe that we are permitted to judge how to best engage in a situation in a way that’s respectful of others and not unnecessarily hard on one’s own way of doing things. That is, in my experience, the best way to avoid things like irritation, emotional exhaustion, self pity, and a whole host of noxious passions.

In my next post I will try to articulate “re-entry  advice for introverts.”

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