On Accepting Correction with a Cheerful Heart

“Brevity and conciseness are the parents of correction.” (Hosea Ballou)

Accepting correction at the best of times can prove difficult but with a cheerful heart? Whether in the quest of spiritual enlightenment or not, for often we find it harder to be ‘put right’ when we imagine the Creator on our side, it would seem too much to ask. To be corrected might be humbling enough, but to be thankful and with a gracious disposition, is that demanding too much? At the same time a good education can make little difference to our willingness to be corrected. In fact, the more qualified we are, the less likely we will take kindly to correction. Intransigence and an inflated opinion of oneself are huge blocks which stand in the way of admitting error. Our ego is normally at odds with the practice of humility. One of the reasons we do not like to be corrected, wrote the American transcendentalist R. W. Emerson, is the sense we are being “persecuted whenever we are contradicted.” Is this not also true of ourselves? We habitually connect correction with reproof (or being judged from which we instinctively recoil).

It is impossible to improve our lives, to learn new things and to succeed in reaching our goals, without accepting at least some form of correction. Sometimes this instruction to set us right might be constant and subtle until we ourselves learn the lesson and are able to teach it to others (learning a craft or acquiring a new set of skills for example). On other occasions it might need to be immediate and direct lest we cause ourselves or others preventable harm (substance abuse or the habit of lying for instance). More commonly it will be something as simple as the pointing out of an obvious fallacy or an inconsistency in our argument. The etymology of the word “correction” is revealing. It can be traced to the Latin corrigere which is “to make straight, bring into order”. Think also on the stonemason and carpenter who use the spirit level to indicate with precision the horizontal or vertical of a surface.

All this has more to do with acceptance and much less with self-blame. Without quarrel or egomania. Saint Paul in one of his pastoral epistles speaks of correction “with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:23). And how might we achieve this gentle art of correction? It can be achieved by sharing in the sufferings of the other. Abraham Lincoln’s favourite Old Testament book Proverbs equates the acceptance of correction as the pathway to life and with the gaining of wisdom, “Listen to advice and accept correction, and in the end you will be wise” (Prov 19:20). Not surprisingly, it is the humble in spirit who are more often the wisest among us. They are the ones who are ‘vulnerable’ to a ‘change of heart’ for correction is hollow when it is removed from transformation. Similarly to pain which in itself cannot build character unless it is fully faced.

Correction and pain will very often follow one after the other. The truth can sometimes hurt.

There is a treasured story in the ascetic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church of a simple old monk doing obedience when he was corrected by his much younger bishop on the approved rendering of the Pater Noster. The old monk on gladly accepting this correction quickly forgot one of the rubrics and ran after his superior to be corrected once more. By this time the young bishop and his party had returned to the boat which had brought them to this distant monastic community. The venerable recluse without giving it a second thought, and intent on doing his obedience and looking to be corrected [that is to be “brought into order”], thought it nothing to chase after the small vessel by running on the water! Now, certainly, this marvellous little story need not be taken literally but the lesson is wondrous and full of implications. To accept correction is to open ourselves up to infinite possibilities and to realize our potential. This has nothing to do with deflating and antagonistic criticism, but everything to do with life affirming growth. In teaching others, to paraphrase the Serbian poet and essayist Dejan Stojanović, we also correct ourselves. There is no instance where correction from a trusted person (such as parent, teacher, or mentor) has not been to our betterment.

Even if we should disagree with what we hear or if the direction might be a little askew for no human being is infallible, to at least contemplate the possibility that we might have fallen into error and allowed for pride to make us hard of hearing. Sometimes we will discern the importance of this intercession years later or during a moment of luminous clarity. Hindsight, too, will often reveal to us where we might have fallen short of the mark and lost valuable time going about in circles. We should respond to ‘blame’ the same way as we might respond to ‘praise’ the Buddhist tradition has taught, with “mindfulness and equanimity”. In one place of the Brahmajala Sutta after a disagreement between two monks on an aspect of Siddhartha’s personality, the Buddha himself indifferent to the content of the conversation was concerned only with how his disciples would accept either praise or blame. It was the attitude which mattered with all else being nothing more than “hindrance”.

For the community of believers within the Christian tradition correction with its correlation to “gnosiology” [theory of knowledge] brings us closer to the authentic expression of the Holy Spirit who lives and acts within us. What is more to a nearer proximity of what it really means to be Christ-like.

“Dear Lord, help me to accept correction and to seek the counsel from those you have set on my path with a cheerful heart and not with a recalcitrant spirit. Allow me to see all the clearer even as my natural sight grows dimmer, the marvellous gifts of growth and the realization of potential that come with being corrected from those who truly love me.”

Humility

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

  Ford Madox Brown's  Jesus Washing Peter's Feet  (1876) 

Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (1876) 

Few have been able to write deeply on humility, and of these authors only a handful are widely known. The real witnesses to this special grace have invariably been those who have lived by its fruits. So important and fundamental a virtue it is, that all of the great religions understand it as a necessary condition for the acquisition of wisdom and enlightenment. A virtue is something more than a good quality. It is a call to transformation. Many of us are ruled not so much by God or ‘disbelief’ but our pride. And yet, once we understand this actuality in our lives and are able to define it, we can use it to help us grow in the spirit. If we should look honestly into our heart we will find even before we open our mouths to speak, the initial action to be inspired by pride, either in the asserting or refuting of a statement. These are not negative responses in themselves, not always, but typically they will be made with the intent to establish our own credibility or to diminish that of another.

Humility, it is said by those who have studied this royal path, would prefer to silence or to surrender the ego, to throw the light onto the other who is standing opposite. Sometimes it might mean to accept calumny for a season or to suffer an injustice and to respond with charity rather than vengeance. More often than not we will have saved our soul from distress and allowed for the truth to reveal itself in other more meaningful ways. Humility is not a sign of weakness, or giving up on the fight, or hiding one’s talents under the bushel. It is a quiet but powerful statement of a person living through an unshakeable peace, someone that has knowledge of their potential. It also means to be acutely aware of one’s own defects and failings, to be constantly mindful of the log in the eye. The etymology of this beautiful word ordinarily connected to the Latin humilitas for “grounded” or “from the earth” can also be traced to the Old French umelite which can also mean “sweetness”.

So why have I published this piece? Am I not skirting with a terrible danger? Particularly since humility has never been one of my strengths. But I want to get a clearer picture of my mortal enemy- the exalting of the self... so that I could become more familiar with its approach. To discern it when like that clade of lizards which change colour, it might not in every single instance get around me. In the Christian scriptures there is no greater revelation as to the awesomeness and potential of the practice of humility than the lesson of the ‘kenosis’ when Christ emptied himself of his divine glory: “[b]ut made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). And so there is a bodily labour to humility as well, it is not just talk. Love and humility are co-existent, uniquely powerful as forces of change, and at their most genuine, indistinguishable one from the other.