The other day I was about to embark on a three hour drive back home from a trip to Alabama with some family and I was exhausted. As the drive began, my friend called me to ask about the talk I was going to give to a group of high school students that night. I recited my outline to him and he agreed that it sounded solid. Then he brought up a talk I had given a few weeks ago to high school students. I loved that talk. I really spoke from a place of experience and from my heart to these kids and they were all super engaged. After my talk, many came to tell me how impactful it was for them and tell me good job. However, on this phone call, my friend told me something different. He told me that my content for the past talk was great but my tone came off as harsh. He told me that I really should watch that and try to be less severe or rough in how I come across to these high school students. I knew he was right. Any human, especially adolescents, puts up walls immediately when they feel threatened or under condemnation. I agreed with him and hung up. But, as he delivered this criticism, something inside of me started to get defensive. It kind of stung because he brought something to my attention that I was not previously aware of. Where I thought I was perfect, he brought up an imperfection. Always a good hurt when I get a dose of reality.
I think truly accepting criticism from others with a good heart is incredibly difficult. At least for me it is. Yet, I see this as necessary to becoming a better human because we must develop an awareness of ourselves, especially of our weaknesses and shortcomings. Unfortunately, since we are such limited beings, we have great trouble perceiving and acknowledging our faults because sometimes we are blind to them. Our own ideas, pride, perceptions, and many other factors block us from seeing our own blunders and deficiencies. Thus, human beings have blind spots.
There are many ways our blind spots can become visible, but I think the most necessary method is by way of criticism from others. A true friend gives criticism in a charitable and compassionate manner. We do not want to see our friends disillusioned from reality and the truth of things. So, when one of us is in error, the other helps us become aware so we may live in truth. The director of the wilderness camp I work at illustrates this principle for us each summer. I’ll paraphrase what he says:
If you are running a business, who are your best customers? The natural answer is: the ones that keep coming back. But, that’s wrong. Those are good customers, but your best customers are the ones that complain.
This is the friend that tells you about the food in your teeth so you don’t talk all night not knowing it’s in there. Receiving criticism, or becoming aware of things you were previously blind to, is typically awkward, tough, or uncomfortable. However, is it better to live in awareness or ignorance?
Another necessary mode our blindspots can become visible is through self-reflection, particularly in the context of our relationships to others. A phenomenon that I find incredible about the human person is something called reaction formation in the psychology field. This complex idea deals with defense mechanisms and emotional impulses, but I will briefly state an aspect of this principle that uncovers an enlightening truth. Here it is: Typically the thing I do not like about other people is what I do not like about myself. This is not to say that everything that ticks you off about others is a bad quality of your own, but the frequency of this truth in my own life has shocked me. When I experience an aversion to someone because of their pride, it is because of my dislike for my own prideful nature. When I dislike someone for getting too competitive and taking a game too seriously, it is because I dislike how my own competitive nature can get the better of me. What an astonishing way to realize one’s own faults. One person acts as a mirror for another. We reflect qualities and traits of each other so we may perceive ourselves. Not only can others tell us about ourselves, but they can show us.
This awareness born through criticism and self-reflection makes us more human. Humans are capable of knowing themselves. We are able to become conscious of who we are and our place in the world. We act from this place of knowledge. Thus, the more we are aware of ourselves, the better our lives. We do not have to worry about getting into an accident because we could not see our blindspots. Awareness allows us the opportunity to better give of ourselves, because we know now what we have to offer. This opens doors in our careers, relationships, activities… etc.
It all starts with opening up, because we acknowledge our need for assistance in gaining a clearer understanding of ourselves and life. We say: I am an imperfect human on the journey to truth. Truth of myself and reality, so I must open up to others because they see things I cannot.