I was reminded the other day of a great story regarding criticism. No one is immune from criticism and each of us needs to learn effective ways of coping with it. Part of what makes criticism maddening is that we often can’t find a way to please our critics.
The story is of a man, his son, and his donkey. They are travelling cross country and pass through several villages along their journey. At first, the man decides to ride the donkey while asking his son to walk. Obviously this makes sense and as the man is older and more frail, while the boy is young and strong. As they pass through the first village the people who observe them begin to murmur about how arrogant the man is and that he is abusive toward the boy. The poor boy! Hearing their criticism and seeking to correct this, the man decides to put the boy on the donkey as he chooses to walk alongside. When they enter the next village the people begin to mutter at what a travesty this is. The man is elderly and the boy is so capable. It’s a sure sign of disrespect. The poor man! In trying to quiet this criticism, they decide to both get on the donkey and ride it together. Surely this would put an end to people’s meddling! As they enter the third village, the people begin to grumble about them for overloading the donkey in such a manner. The poor donkey! To try to lessen their disapproval, they both decide to walk alongside the donkey. As they enter the forth village, the people began to disparage them for wasting the use of a perfectly good donkey. How dumb can you be? As they enter the fifth village, they are seen carrying the donkey in their arms, hoping for someone to say a positive word of affirmation. No one does.
This is so often the way it is with criticism. We try to avoid it but it always seems to find us. Someone finds fault with the way we’re doing something, even though it’s the best way we know how to do it. We are trying. We are giving it our best. It just isn’t enough in some people’s eyes.
It’s been said that there is always a kernel of truth in someone’s criticism. The wisest people I know try to find that kernel and benefit from it. Sometimes you have to work hard, but there’s usually something to learn. Wise people make the most of it, and move on. They realize they will never please all the people. They learn what they can and call it a day.
So what do you do if you want to avoid criticism altogether? Simply say nothing. Do nothing. Be nothing. That’s your best bet. While it’s far from fool proof, it’s a coward’s way doing life. Just lay low. Live below the radar. Try to be invisible.
One historic person that I have come to admire greatly is Teddy Roosevelt. Far from being immune from criticism, his larger than life persona served as a lightning rod for it. He was constantly hounded and hassled by people who felt they were smarter and wiser. The constant nagging could have destroyed him. Instead, it made him. He was like a tree which grew up strong by having a strong wind constantly blowing against it. It developed deep roots. It was solid. It held firm
I close with the words Roosevelt famously said. These are words to live by, and they are words to remember. Here’s what he said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Get in the arena! Get dirty! Sweat! Try! Fail! Learn victory! Learn defeat! Overcome! Become!