Words kill, words give life; they're either poison or fruit—you choose. ~ Proverbs 18:21
As a college art professor, I am basically a paid critic. I teach seniors at a prestigious institution of higher learning. It is my job to analyze their work, just as they're about to graduate. I have been a professional illustrator for well over a decade; my list of credits is half a mile long. Using the foundational elements of 2-D design and color theory in tandem with my "industry savvy" (ha!), I do my best to help my students figure out what's working in their compositions, and what isn't. Because I want them to succeed in life, I am honest when I assess their work. Artists are sensitive by nature, so the best teachers deliver Helpful Suggestions with kid gloves. I have learned to cushion my comments, padding each one with marshmallows to soften the blow. Explaining the need for sandpaper to slough off their rough edges, I reference "Kruger Industrial Smoothing," hoping for a laugh. Instead, tumbleweeds blow through the classroom. I hear a cricket chirping in the distance. Tough crowd. And, young! How can Seinfeld already be outdated?
My husband, also an artist, is a golf coach and a PGA teaching pro. His job is very similar to mine, in that it requires a critical eye. As a coach, he has a harder row to hoe because golf is a singular game. Trying to get a group of ten individual guys to play as a team is a lot like herding squirrels: frustrating. My students know it's in their best interest to listen to me, even if they disagree, because in the end I'm the one who grades their stuff. Fred has a more difficult time. He faces a lot of resistance, which can be draining and even hurtful. Maybe that's why he doesn't appreciate my resistance to the multitude of Helpful Suggestions he offers around the house. And maybe, just maybe, his seeming inability to ever gain his parents' approval when he was a child has something to do with the way he deflects the Helpful Suggestions I sling back at him, in self defense. My mantra: "You're not perfect either, ya know."
Criticism. What a topic. Books have been written on the importance giving and receiving it well. Criticism is, er, critical to any creative process, in every line of work. This connection is especially easy to see in the arts. Art is self-expression, but if it resonates only within the confines of the artist's mind, the result won't pay many bills. You have to like the work you're creating, but if no one else does, you'll end up bitter, and under-funded. On the other hand, too much criticism results in blandness. Try to please everyone, and the results will be underwhelming, take it or leave it, unmemorable. That is not cool and, in the end, probably won't be profitable either. Where is the balance?
The bible recommends seeking wise counsel. Seeing the best path is easy when all of your wise counselors steer you in the same direction, but sometimes they give conflicting advice. This generally means there is more than one good way to go, in which case the choice is (prayerfully) yours. If you're a believer, it's between you and God. Prayer is a huge part of my life and my decision-making, and I advise prayer to my students, hoping that someone will hear me. They all pretend deafness at this point, doodling on their desks so as not to appear un-hip. But they perk up when I insist that my opinion is not the only one that matters. I don't think they hear that very often, from their other professors, or from anyone. I advise, "Ask for insight from a handful of trusted, objective observers, people with a good eye, who don't know you well enough to be swayed by relationship. In other words, don't include your mother in this group; she loves everything you do."
Or maybe she doesn't. Maybe you paint a portrait that rivals the Mona Lisa, and your mom shrugs and says, "Too much vermillion—I'm so bored with your palette. And you should have turned her head. A three-quarter view would be more interesting."
Most books handling the topic of criticism are written to help people recover from over-doses of it. Living with an overly critical person can be a nightmare. Adults read the aforementioned books and seek help from therapists and pastors and kindhearted, patient friends. Grown-ups can get away, or work to make changes. (If you are married to someone with a critical spirit, read Boundaries, and/or join a local Celebrate Recovery group. And, of course, pray, pray, pray.) But what about children? They are stuck, defenseless, and suffer life long scars as a result.
Because of the nature of Fred's job and mine, and the way we both forget to leave our critical hats at the office, I've had to give this topic much thought over many years. It seems to me that each of us, as fellow citizens of planet earth, has a responsibility to measure our words with great care. Jesus is all about relationship. We live and work with others, in community. People have opinions, and they matter, but what matters more is how they are offered, and when. Unsolicited advice, while sometimes necessary, is rarely (okay, never) welcome; learning restraint of tongue is a step toward Christian maturity. When we are asked to give advice, we should think and pray before answering. Requests for counsel or advice should be taken very seriously, and handled with care.
We all know, the truth can hurt—but hearing the truth is essential. Providing honest feedback requires courage and tact, and toughness from the one on the receiving end. This fact of life should guide each of us, whether we're prayerfully giving criticism, or receiving it. I think that overreacting to a well-intended helpful comment is as unfair as issuing criticism harshly.
Having just written the above conclusion, I must now follow up with an apology to my long-suffering husband, whom I adore. Fred, you are right. The meatloaf is better with onions, I'm terrible at arranging the cupboards, and if I want Gray to be healthy I have to stop buying him sprinkle donuts from the bakery at Publix.
(God, please, help me to be less defensive. Amen.)
What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. ~ Matthew 18:18b The Message