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.”

On our reputation

“A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” (Charles H. Spurgeon)

St Mary of Egypt

St Mary of Egypt

Why is our reputation so incredibly important to us and why does it hurt us to the core when it is attacked? Simply stated reputation is “the belief or opinion held about someone or something.”

It is what commends us to others whether they are familiar persons or strangers. In many cultures to harm someone’s reputation is considered a serious offence. We would say that somebody has been “defamed”. To defame from the Lat. diffamare, is to damage the good reputation of another, to literally “spread evil report”. Most people prize their reputation (or “good name”) above all else. Once lost it is difficult to get back. In secular literature the ontological implications of losing one’s reputation is famously described in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. In one place the starry-eyed Michael Cassio, Othello’s young lieutenant, unsuspectingly laments to his tormentor: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!”

Our reputation is connected to our good name and our “good name” reflects and tells the world who we are and what motivates us. Very often our reputation will precede us: “She can be trusted” or alternatively “He cannot be relied upon”. Sometimes a bad reputation is “earnt” through repeated misdemeanours or behaviours which do not inspire trust. Here, however, our concern is with people with good reputations who have had them damaged through no fault of their own. And this can happen in different ways: through an act of revenge; a reaction to jealousy; an irrational hatred or dislike; in response to anger; a sense of vindication; in the hope of gain; to contradict the argument of an opponent; to belittle or to dismiss the other as irrelevant. Even from a misunderstanding between two previously good friends.

Nowadays, too, there is the distinction between our regular day-to-day reputation and our online reputation increasingly referred to as our “brand name”. Reputation hard earned on the battlefield of life can be superficially built online and so the introduction of social media terms like “reputation commodity” and “reputation management”. The ‘googlefication’ of reputation is only one of the drawbacks of our increasingly electrified lives. Our online reputation can be destroyed by our “adversaries” in a moment. We have no real control over it outside our own contribution to the building of the brand name. We have become consumed with building our online personas, instead of actually building our character, that is, the moral quality which defines us. Saint Augustine has wonderfully expressed it, “character is determined not by knowledge but by what we love.”

How do we respond when we are innocent and our reputations have been besmirched? The natural response is to fight back to let the world know we are not the persons that our defamers are suggesting. We want to quickly restore our reputations. When we can undo what has been done, it is good and proper. But there is another way, especially online where the manipulation of our life histories will potentially wound a great number of us. What is this response? It is not revolutionary on account of it being something new for its practise is ancient, but because it is uniquely inspiring. It has been practised by the majority of those individuals that over time we have held to be examples of the finest representations of human nature. These inspirational human beings were concerned with character. Socrates is an archetypal example: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear.” As are Saint Mary of Egypt and Ramakrishna and Mahatma Gandhi. And the other great group of prophets who have walked this earth caring naught for fame or fortune. There are two characteristics which fortify the behaviour of these awesome personalities: courage and self-belief.

It is not complete oblivion to our reputation. It is not to say that we do not at all care what people think of us, for we do, but not to be driven by our ego which would make of us a prince when in truth we are a pauper. At other times we might reckon a polished reputation will prove our value to others. That too is futile, for unless our character backs whatever goes before, we will be found out. What is said or written about us should not determine the condition of our interior world or force our hand to respond when the quiet voice speaks to us saying, “…this time, this time let it go.” The truth of who we are cannot be contained. We can pretend to be people that we are not, and others may portray us for that which we are not, but eventually the actuality of who we are will find the way to be revealed. Often enough, even after our passing. In many ancient traditions the reputation of warriors (both mythic and real) was only ever established after the death of the hero. The same goes with the canonization of saints. The process to “authenticate” takes time. It does not happen all of a sudden when we are elected to a high post, or win a great prize, or can show that 100,000 people follow us on FacebookEarlier there was a reference to the scheming Iago. Surprisingly, he did have wise words to say to the sorely stricken Cassio: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”

For the community of believers, as well, reputation for its own sake is not to be sought in this world where the approval of peers has nothing to do with our commendation “before the judgement seat of the Christ” (2Cor. 5:10). In the New Testament our spirituality, that is our transforming inner being, is established by our character and the fruits which flow from our faith and works (Jm 2:14-26). In Philippians 2:7 is that famous reference of the kenosis (‘the emptying’) of the GodMan of his divine glory, that is, he hides his ‘reputation’ that he may be revealed by his character. And so in one place in the Gospel he asks, “Who do men say that I am?” (Mk 8:27).

“Dear Lord too often I care what my friends or colleagues might think of me. I fret and become anxious that I might disappoint or be found out and that my hard earned reputation is tarnished. Please allow for my heart and mind to have no worry for what the world may believe or make of me, but rather that my first concern is the building of my character which is that eternal part of me.” 

Not Tonight My Heart

“Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them” (Vincent McNabb).

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's  Sadness  (2012)

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's Sadness (2012)

Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. If you should move your hand to extinguish the light, this light, it will all be finished, there will be no turning back. This was not how your life upon this earth was meant to end. What has brought you here, to this darkest of places. Who has robbed you of hope? Who has stolen your dreams? And who has sought to diminish your worth? Stay with me for a while. Let us keep each other company, at least until the morning hours. We need not talk, a few words might be all we need, stay with me, at least until the morning hours. If it grows cold, if it gets too dark, I am here, with you. What are you thinking? That no one understands? That people, even those you love, have stopped listening? I know it is what you are thinking. I know. It is frightening to feel completely alone. Yes, it hurts, in places too deep for names. Nameless places, there is no room for alphabets here, only sighs, and moans, and groans. Not even tears they were spent long ago. I know. Your thoughts are real, like a broken bone, but they are not you. Tonight especially you must distinguish between these thoughts, and your will to live. It is difficult to breathe, even to breathe, that too I understand. If only this pain would go away, if it would stop, at last. Your suffering has become unbearable, I can see this, any moment it can break you, break you into a thousand pieces. Is your agony greater now than it was an hour ago? You are still here, you see, all things are possible. I do not ask of you to take a leap of faith into the limitless abyss, but to be still and to incline your ear, listen, sometimes you need to say good-bye to the old self, and it can only happen on nights like these. On nights like these when you are tested, when you are brought to the scorching edge, to be forged, and to be made stronger. Do not allow for despair to swathe its binding around your eyes. Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. Understand pain for what it is; an invaluable helper to keep your spirit awake and alert that you might respond both to the light and to the fire of the Sun. Your fight is not with your pain, but it is a battle against your suffering. Pain is your hurting, but it is your suffering, it is this, which will give you meaning.

And so ask yourself, this is not the time for half-truths and excuses, and so ask yourself, what has brought you here, to this valley of the shadow of death? Let go of things and places and people which are pulling at your soul, allow yourself the joy and lightness of heart which can only come with the great abandonment. Release your ego, it is weighing you down. Just for these next few minutes, allow for yourself to see through those swathes which are binding your eyes, just for these next few minutes. I will let you in on a simple secret, known to angels and anchorites of old, what is unspeakable can yet be lived. Let this suffering be your way to a deeper understanding of who you are, and who you are called to become. Tonight this could be that place of your greatest and most important discovery, here in this bloody battlefield, you are given your second chance. I know you have had this revelation of the ‘other self’ in the past. It is you, it really is you, do not be afraid of the splendor. “So do not fear, for I am with you.” (Is. 41:10) Hope cannot be taken away, it can only be surrendered. Dreams cannot be stolen, they can only be forgotten. Worth cannot be diminished, it is forever a measure of your dignity as a child of God. Your wounds, these great big wounds, which you think are beyond any possible healing let them become windows, dazzling openings to Love and Light. Become the refuge and the source of belief to others. You will have the most to teach.

Do not feel guilty it is all right to sometimes feel like this, for your soul to ask of you to nourish it with new meaning and content, it is shedding old skin. It refuses to become stone. It is good that you can still feel, even down to these very depths of your anguish, this is your proof, you believe in something. Hold tight onto this grace. Is it your own voice you are hearing? Wonderful, this is how the new day begins. Things will be much clearer, you will not have all the answers, but you will be closer to the reasons. You will have drawn nearer to your purpose determined even before the foundation of the brightest star. And so not tonight, this is not the night, let not your trembling hand turn to extinguish the light. I am here, with you. 

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.