For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on minding my own business, and what an eye-opener that has been. Several factors converged and convinced me to take a look at how critical I can be. Now, there is constructive criticism, to be sure, and I can be good at that. If someone asks for my input, I’m happy to help. But what I’m talking about here is the critique of things like the layout of a room, the music at a function, whether white or brown robes would have been more appropriate at a particular liturgy, how much money a friend spends on what seems superfluous, or how little another spends on something I deem to be essential, how so many other people seem to have their priorities out of whack. Anything, really.
The commonality in each of these examples is that these are not things where I was in any way part of the decision-making process, nor should I have been. These critiques were not directed toward someone who might have been able to do something about a given situation in the future. These are things I shared with friends and family or just entertained in my apparently under-occupied brain.
By making myself take a moment to think about what I was about to say before I said it, for the first several weeks it felt, startlingly, as though I had been struck mute. It was embarrassing and convicting to realize how much of what made up a typical conversation for me was completely unnecessary. I was surprised to have to admit to myself that so much of what I said really and truly served no purpose whatsoever. Not only did my critical conversation not help anything, it actually hurt – not only those who were the subjects, but maybe even more-so, it hurt me, and it hurt those with whom I shared my negativity. I was stuck in critical thinking that eventually extended, silently, to become extreme self-critique. If so much of what I could observe in the world was so deserving of my criticism, how much more was my secret interior life unfit and unworthy? And I am deeply saddened having realized that by my negativity, I have encouraged friends and loved ones down that same ugly path within themselves.
My newfound silence, however, afforded me an opportunity. As I less and less frequently gave voice to critiques of people or places, I found that the negative thoughts themselves became less frequent. As a result, I became able, for the most part, to live and let live, and that is a special kind of freedom in itself. But the biggie is that since there are dramatically fewer critical thoughts in my head these days, there is room to consider things that I had been avoiding – important things – things like feelings.
Feelings are the ways in which I express who I really am, and these are the very thoughts I have been working for so many years to hide behind critical observations of so-and-so. Journaling and blogging are helping give voice to these new observations. Things make sense when they are written out in words. And now that I am not hiding my feelings from myself, I find that it is also impossible to hide them from others. These, often difficult, words are those that must be spoken – in truth and in charity to be sure, but spoken.
I feel proud of the young man who is such a dignified altar server, so I tell him. I feel camaraderie with a friend who struggles as the parent of a grown child, so I hug her. I feel upset when I am overlooked or unheard, so I speak up. I feel sad sometimes, and it’s okay to cry. But the amazing thing is that as often as not these days, I’m just happy. And I smile.