I’ve had a request for a Real Essay on the topic of some of my recent posts: mostly about being an introvert mission participant. I started writing notes for said Real Essay, and was reminded of how bad I am at revision. I also noticed that the conclusions I came to were often less important than the reasoning process leading to those conclusions, so to write an essay that focused on the conclusions and overlooked the process, or made it opaque, would be to miss the point. This is something that I’ve encountered frequently in education as well: that it’s not so much my final understanding that’s important, as the freedom to arrive at that understanding honestly, without short-cuts. I can become stuck in destructive thought loops not so much because the thing I’m thinking about is especially difficult, perplexing, or even important, as because the thought process behind it never became transparent. If I can say rather straightforwardly that I’ve heard one way to process intentionally challenging events, and that it didn’t work very well for me, and here are the things that I don’t think work for everybody, or at every point in a given person’s life, then that allows a kind of freedom; it allows me to look at that other way of processing events as something that’s legitimate and necessary for some people at some times, and so it’s a particular mode of processing, and not all encompassing. Therefore, I can process differently, and look at how that is, and not necessarily feel that I’m failing to take sufficient advantage of the occasion. Sometimes it matters just as much how a person arrives somewhere, as that he does so.
For instance, it may be important to me, but not as a general principle, to learn that I can be easily alarmed by warnings against criticism, because of the particular meaning that criticism has for me. In general (perhaps for you who are reading it), I find that it’s just as helpful to see that if there’s something that’s said very often by one’s peers that is consistently alarming, then it might be worth looking in some detail about one’s own meaning of whatever it is, and whether it might not be shared by everyone. If I am consistently alarmed by how modern people are always beating up on criticism, it may be at least as much because they mean by that word something more like what I mean by attack, denigrate or whine about. In which case, yes, it’s wrong to just whine about things because they’re annoying. At various times I was shocked and dismayed to hear John Eldridge and Don Miller ragging on critics, because I have found critics to be very helpful. If I don’t understand Ulysses, but it’s worth understanding, then a good critic might be able to help. I would love to be able to read a good cultural critic about Georgia, because perhaps they could bring together and enlighten little cultural clues that I haven’t been able to understand as forming a coherent identity yet. Good art critics may denigrate bad art, but they can also help one to appreciate and even love good art in a way that one mightn’t be able to on one’s own. So when I hear people attacking criticism, what springs first to mind is a world where one is left with simply a piece of art and one’s own resources, and no intermediaries. In such a world, I think, there are a great many very fine works of art I am simply not equipped to appreciate (and criticism in my sense supports and deepens appreciation, rather than undermining it), but might, if helped by a good critic.
Now, as I others may or may not have been troubled by that particular miscommunication: if I were writing about it, I would probably argue for my understanding of criticism, because I don’t know of another word for the thing that would be missing in the world if criticism in my sense were lost. But at present I’m less interested in that than in the thought process that can go from I don’t understand what you’re saying, but it’s threatening something I care about! to looking at what it is I care about, which I feel is being threatened, and then what it is that the person I’m trying to understand cares about, and which distinctions we need to preserve, or how we can understand what it is we’re trying to accomplish it (and then toward actually accomplishing it).
I think that if I were going to try to help young people learn to process life experiences, including conferences, missions, and so on, I would start with this: you may find things that you need to believe in, stop believing in, repent of, begin doing, and so on. Probably you will. But you may well also find things that are good and worth affirming; do not dismiss them — use this as an opportunity to affirm them on a different level. To take the example above, you may find that you’re too critical, and need to repent; but you may instead find that you have a kind of criticism that’s necessary and constructive — use this as an opportunity to refine it and put it to good use! You may find that America is a horribly ungrateful, selfish, hedonistic place; you may also find that the part of America you know best is not — be prepared to affirm and appreciate that! Perhaps sometimes it can be as important to affirm as it is to repent, because otherwise we’ll end up repenting of the wrong things in the wrong way. Don’t assume that the way you’ve encountered the world is entirely wrong; humanity is in the image of God, and hardly ever entirely wrong, though broken, distorted, and insufficient. You may find that you need to grow into what you’ve already been given.
You’ve encountered something that surprised you. It may have been something a team member or leader said; it may be something from another culture, or from what you thought was your own culture, but haven’t seen into very far yet. There are a lot of thoughts that we don’t have to engage, but some we do, or they will haunt us for a very long time. So look at it as honestly as you can: you don’t have to immediately see in it the thing you were told that you would; you can first see something else, and then use what you were told as a guide, so as to not end up with something untrue through pride in your own judgement. Sometimes we see into things that are buried a little, are inside the leader’s or writer’s process, but not immediately obvious. It can be a good idea to look into that, or everything on the surface will be incongruent, without us being able to understand why.