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.” 

The Tremendous Mystery of God

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” (Job 38:4-5).

Saint Basil the Great   St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Saint Basil the Great  St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Atheism is, of course, not new. Though the word can be traced to the sixteenth century (lifted from the Ancient Greek to mean “godless” or to “deny the gods”), its history is as old as some of our earliest materialist philosophies and indeed, religions themselves. But there are two particular periods for us ‘moderns’ that are especially noted for the argument that religion is a superstition with adherents who do not exercise reason, and who for the better part, are fanatics.  At the same time natural science renders any literal belief in the Bible indefensible. What is common to these eras, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (late 17th and 18th century), and our present times is the great progress in the sciences. Religious have responded in various ways to such titanic movements, some plainly wrong. There have been those, however, who set the good example. They have done so by entering in to the debate, by accepting correction where correction was required, and acknowledging that the tremendous mystery of God rather than being extinguished by the huge strides of science, is made all the more profound and astonishing.

It is indeed right to admit as believers in an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, that we do not know everything, and there is nothing whatsoever to be lost in acknowledging that we can be enriched by others outside our own particular belief-system. Most of us are familiar with the Enlightenment and with its revolutionary contribution not only in the sphere of the sciences but also in the broader area of the humanities. The medieval world-view was effectively put to death and so the idea of the modern world came into being. But what is this ‘new atheism’ so prominently espoused in our days by some very famous and very passionate people?

New atheism is not so ‘new’ after all. It has roots in the cultural Marxism of the 1920’s, though it often claims to be “carrying out” the work of the Enlightenment. This movement above all strong in the 1960’s understood Christian religion as a force which blinded people, particularly the working class, of its true nature and purpose. And so the religion had to be destroyed. But not everything about this school of thought which understood culture as a tool of oppression, is so damning, for instance, its critique of unequal social relations. Nowadays however, the rapid advances of scientific exploration and the modern-day marvels of technology have added an additional prestige to this increasingly popular new atheism movement. Moreover, the open and free access to information has allowed for the abuses of power in some parts of faith-based communities to become exposed… and rightly so. This has further eroded in many minds the beliefs and claims of religious. So how do we respond to these solid attacks on those very things which we hold to be most precious, that is, our belief in a personal Creator, who is not only interested in our lives, but who also continues to act in history. It is not easy in the face of especially eloquent and persuasive arguments in support of the ‘death of God’, often by persons like the incomparable author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens or the charismatic and highly qualified astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Not all of us have the knowledge and the abilities of an Ernan McMullin or a William Lane Craig to answer back to the first, or of a Sir Robert Boyd or a J. Richard Gott to get back to the second. Most of us would fall down, flat on our faces. So what is it that we ‘lesser lights’ can do?

We can accept and learn. And then testify to whatever little shards of the Light we, ourselves, might possess. Sometimes we might surprise with words and insights we never knew we possessed- the legacy of Pentecost and those tongues "as of fire" (Acts 2:1-4). This is to accept it is natural for individuals to disagree on the ‘big’ questions and that people respond to evidence, whether documentary or physical, in different ways. We each possess diverse gifts and we should admire these talents in others without anxiety or fear that this would somehow diminish or weaken our faith and strengthen the arguments of those on the other side. The new atheists can teach us to be more determined and much better read when presenting to the world our principles of faith, and indeed, to consider what example of moral exemplars we are who claim our ethical foundations from divine revelation. Whether we are Christians or members of other faith-based communities let us not fear those attacks from high places. They are not all misplaced. Let us take what is good and profitable to the spirit, rather than becoming unduly defensive and fretful. We should allow for these strikes to make us more sensitive to our responsibilities as faith bearers, but also to understand that science is a discipline which can only bring to us a greater amazement at the wonderment and mysteries of God, or as others might prefer, primum movens, the ‘Prime Mover’.

It does not mean that we too, cannot take offence at arguments or positions which are either not correct or scientifically prejudicial. We can and should take offence when Saint Paul’s, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11) is flagrantly taken out of context, suggesting that the Apostle to the Gentiles outgrew his faith. This is not only patronizing to readers of the New Testament but also showing that even the best intellects are not immune from an arrant misinterpretation of sources. And also we need not remain silent when elite scientists tell us that religious are “wired” to believe as if that is some sort of crime or evolutionary deficiency. Are we then also to believe the reverse, that those who are “wired” to dis-believe are somehow superior? This position whatever the neurological or biochemical proofs, is not only arrogant but also a terribly dangerous ideology, with consequences too horrible to consider here.

Ultimately, let us go about our own business of trying to become better men and women, and if we believe in a Creator, fear nothing and hope for everything. There is a synthesis here, and it is good to finish in this way. Albert Einstein, who incidentally was not a believer in God- and religious do themselves a disservice by claiming as much for his private correspondence makes it very clear he was not- spoke of his “sense of god” as his “sense of wonder” about the universe. This truly limitless fascination should be a place where we can All meet allowing for the overwhelming awe which grips the heart of the other to inspire our thoughts and to excite our souls. Next to Einstein’s evocative reflection, we can as a community of believers point to a similar declaration from Saint Basil the Great in his Hexaemeron commenting on the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1: “I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story?”