Sunday Thoughts: Criticism

May 19, 2013

Once upon a time, I used to be a JCOM (journalism and communications) major. I loved journalism. In fact, starting in high school, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. There is nothing quite like finding the stories of other people and being the one to tell them. I desperately wanted to be a part of that.

When I started my college experience at Utah State University, I joined the college newspaper staff. We were pumping out three newspapers a week back then, and that meant a lot of interviews and a lot of deadlines. 

One time, I had a religious in-depth story (those are 1,000+ word articles) due at the end of the weekend, and I had been struggling like crazy to find an angle. I didn’t know what to do. I was desperate. In a moment of last resort thinking, I looked up religious studies professors and sent a quick email out to all of them, asking them that if they had time to answer a few questions before Sunday night, I would greatly appreciate it. 

A few responded, many did not, but the worst reaction came from someone who really wasn’t involved at all. A professor who found fault with me and fault with my methods (which, admittedly, weren’t great in the first place) emailed the JCOM department head (who I didn’t even know personally) and told him about the email I had sent. Within a day, the department head had emailed me and torn me to shreds, telling me that I was an embarrassment to journalism, that people like me were the reason journalism got such a bad rap, and that he was contacting all of my editors at The Utah Statesman to tell them about what I had done. 

I was absolutely humiliated. I was a young college kid who made a relatively little mistake, and I was absolutely humiliated by this man and the professor who had told on me. Years later, I know that he was right about some points — I was on a deadline and it was a poor choice on my part to be motivated by desperation. But at the time, I had never felt so awful in my life. 

Around that same time, I was questioning whether I wanted to be involved with journalism at all. That reaction from him decided it. I was done with journalism, I was done with the department, and I never wanted to see or talk to another JCOM professor again. I moved to a major where I could be whatever I wanted, and eventually, I quit my job. 

For months, I held on to that interaction. You should know that one of my biggest weaknesses is that I am terrified of messing up or failing. According to the department head, I had messed up big time. It made me feel sick for almost a year. I sincerely hated that man for what he had said to me, how he had made me feel. 

Holding on to something like that is difficult, mainly because it demonizes you and everyone around you who feels the need to criticize you. I held a grudge for a long time about that incident, but it wasn’t the first time. 

There have been moments, mainly when I was a teenager, when criticism gutted me. In fact, a lot of motivation for what I write comes from how people made me feel. I once had a girl in one of my classes practically shriek, “Did you even wash your hair? It looks filthy.” In ninth grade, on what was supposed to be a fun yearbook retreat, a couple of the girls stared at me and laughed at me, and I still don’t know why, but I know how awful it made me feel about myself. The most personal criticism I ever had came from my best friend, who I doubt knew what she was doing or what she was saying. People never criticize the things you do well, but the things that you’re the most sensitive about, and often, they don’t entirely realize how sensitive you are.

Because of criticism, I shied away from a lot of things. I still do. And I wonder why we innately feel like criticizing others is important. I’d be the first to say that I do it. I’m terrible at it, but I’m not alone. We criticize people so much, that they become what they don’t want to be. We have friends who we only interact with when we feel the need to tell them that their opinion is wrong. We don’t care about them, but we care about correcting them for being different. We scare people from being who they are because we feel the need to make commentary on who they are. All JCOM memories aside, criticism is damaging if we do not do it right, and unfortunately, we not only feel the need to criticize, but we do it poorly. Many times I’ll be sitting at work when a mother comes through with a screaming child, and that child, rather than being coddled or loved is told to settle down and be quiet, its needs completely ignored to make room for this illusion that something in it needs to be corrected. Criticism can change who we are. 

If there’s one thing I regret the most about my incident with the JCOM head, it isn’t that it happened, but that I made it influence so much of my decision. I would have eventually become disillusioned by journalism on my own, but I should never have let the criticism of another human being accelerate that. Frankly, other human beings don’t have any authority over how you should live your life. Let’s talk in employment terms: other people are not skilled enough or intelligent enough to be given the job of influencing your decisions, nor do they have any right to criticize you without knowing everything. 

Just thinking about all of this reminds me that we have a Heavenly Father who isn’t critical of us and doesn’t correct us by ignoring our sensitivities. When we make mistakes, his hand is stretched out in love towards us and we always have the chance to repent and to do better. He won’t humiliate us, but He’ll humble us. He won’t make us feel worthless, but will remind us of our infinite worth. He won’t criticize us, but He’ll advise us and counsel with us. The ultimate example of how to critique comes from Him and our Savior, Jesus Christ. And if we cannot counsel and correct others as our Savior did, then we have no business counseling them at all. 

When we criticize, let us not humiliate but offer kind words. On the flip side, when we are criticized, let us not become something different because of it.

Divine Worth
A Quick Testimony