A few days ago I came across a relatively recent interview with the actor who had played the titular role on a television show I do not remember hearing about when it was on television for three years, namely “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide,” which despite its zany plot full of odd animals and their relationship to the experiences of middle school, had a highly relatable approach. One of the things that struck me from the interview was the comment from the actor that one does not want to hear advice from people who act as if they have everything under control but rather one is willing to accept principles that come from people who are clearly trying to work things out. We all struggle. Some of us struggle openly and obviously, while others struggle more privately and quietly. Regardless, though, all struggle the same.
It is difficult for me to put into words how much I am irritated by the critiquing of others. As someone who has spent a significant amount of time writing critiques of books and other things (movies, restaurants, products, hotels, and so on), I am aware that this is perhaps not the most obvious attitude that one has towards receiving what one is dishing out. I tend to envision my own critiques as not being about the person or people involved but about the experience, for one, and for another I tend to view my comments as being directed to those who may be called upon to select among options rather than to the people who wrote the book or provided the experience themselves. To the extent that I viewed my reviewing as being directed to the actual owners or employees of places I went to or of the authors of books or the bands responsible for making music, for example, my critiquing attitude would be far different in light of my own intense dislike of being critiqued by others. As is often the case with humanity, it is far more enjoyable to dish out critique and to give advice than it is to take either.
I find this to be a fascinating matter, personally. We tend to give criticism to others not based on our own performance but rather than our own tastes. Frequently we tend to be harshest on the sins of others that correspond most to our own flaws and faults. My intense irritation at those who are harshly critical towards me is not unconnected to my own savagely harsh and critical wit that can frequently be wielded against others, and which I attempt to restrain as much as possible. In like fashion, we tend to give advice that is either based on our own academic knowledge (frequently divorced from real life application), or based on personal experience that is at best partially and incompletely understood and very limited in its nature and applicability. Given my own sensitivity to the rank hypocrisy of humanity as a whole, I tend to shy away from being a self-appointed personal trainer or dispenser of unwanted advice, since I am aware of rather serious and immediate and obvious retorts to such efforts. It is lamentable that others who are quick to try to give advice are not so self-aware of the same sort of counterarguments that can be easily marshalled against such “well-meaning” efforts at securing self-importance by being helpful to others who do not ask and often do not want such things.
If criticism and unsolicited advice is seldom welcome to many people–and by no means welcome to this author–what is it that we want from other people as we attempt to survive and thrive in a harsh and cruel world? At least in my own observation and experience–for what it is worth–we tend to want two things from others. For one, we want encouragement from others who share our experiences to demonstrate that we are not alone in struggling. Occasionally, we may welcome actual assistance in our struggles that does not involve judgment, criticism, and efforts by others to bolster their own superiority through their supposed assistance to us. This can be a very tricky matter. Other people may think they are doing us a favor when in reality we are doing them a favor that they do not recognize nor appreciate. What we also want are often good examples in how to accomplish what we struggle with. If we see someone who lives a life in a way that we respect and appreciate, it is well worth it to examine their lives and their approach and to learn accordingly. This is especially valuable when we come from backgrounds where certain aspects may be an obvious struggle.
What can be learned from this? We best appreciate counsel when we seek it out ourselves and not when it seeks us out. This is not to say that even the most clumsy and maladroit and hypocritical advice giver does not often speak the truth (albeit often not very kindly and often without understanding in how poorly they serve as an example of the ideals that they preach), but rather that the experience of such matters varies widely based on our own choice in the matter. Those who are self-appointed helpers and guides are often blind to the specific context of what they seek to critique and tend to want to build themselves up as experts to gratify their own sense of vanity and self-importance. We cannot be unaware of these temptations given the commonality of the desire to feel appreciated and important and of value given the difficulties and struggles of life that we all face, including the way that this world and the people within it regularly threaten our own self-regard. One of the reasons our advice and critique is so unwelcome is that it comes with a feeling of superiority towards those we claim to wish to help. To the extent that we recognized that we are no better (and are in some ways worse) than the people we look down upon and wish to help from a position of lofty and commanding heights, our sense of empathy and understanding with others can make us not only more welcome to others as sources of advice and counsel but also a lot more effective as well. For it is only when we take the beam out of our own eye that we can deal with the specks in the eyes of others, and it is only when we judge ourselves (and repent accordingly) that we are fit to judge and critique others.