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.”

The Qualities of a Good Teacher

“So what does a good teacher do? Create tension- but just the right amount.” (Donald Norman)

What are the qualities of a good teacher? It is another of those difficult questions for which there is no single answer. Though teachers come from different walks of life we normally associate this most important of vocations to education. “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” This recognizable quote from Henry Adams, the 19th century American historian and intellectual, is brilliant in capturing the significance and consequence of the craft. Broadly speaking we could connect the “teacher” to any position of authority whose role it is to instruct and to lead by example. That is, to serve not only in their prime position of educator, but also as role model. Parents, most would agree, are at the top of the teaching pyramid. Here, we are specifically looking at the educator, those persons who step into a classroom and are typically given charge of a young group of people. More than the requirement for high-quality training, the character or disposition of the teacher is the most important of all qualities.

We find countless lists of what makes a “good teacher”. Invariably, and with good reason: ability to motivate and to inspire, leadership, command of subject, communication and listening skills, patience, flexibility, vision, trust, humour, and professionalism. Wisdom, the exercise of good judgement and the practise of discernment cannot be taught. That comes with experience and is at the core of the pedagogical framework. Indeed, without at least some of these qualities the teaching of anything is doomed. There are three other qualities however, which underpin those mentioned above and allow for even the most “uneducated” and “least qualified” amongst us to become truly great teachers. Some of the greatest teachers have not ticked the “right boxes” and do not have a resume registering famed alma maters or cataloguing pages of publications. Many have been unschooled, rejected and overlooked in the world, only to be discovered later. What are the essential qualities that most would look for in an inspirational teacher and which would give substance to all else? These are humility, passion, and sacrifice. It is always assumed, of course, that knowledge and the engagement of critical dialogue [which is the love and pursuit of truth] are the underlying principles in the educational process.

  • Humility, the modest view of our own self-importance, is the founding block to teaching. It is this interior quality, the most priceless of attributes which permits for the teacher to both give and to receive instruction, to be open to correction as he or she teaches and corrects others.
  • Passion, but not with a “paroxysm” for the subject which is being taught. It is an unrehearsed enthusiasm to teach the subject and to share in the larger or smaller fragments of the revelation.
  • Sacrifice, to be willing to give up of himself or herself in ways not normally expected, so that the student might thrive and shine. Even if this means the laying down of one’s own life that the student might live in the place of the teacher: not only metaphorically, but also literally.
“What else?” asked the young pupil of the old man.
Discernment, you simply must have discernment,” he responded cheerfully.
“What do you mean?” the young pupil persisted.
“To know when to encourage and to never, but to never clip the wings…
Oh yes and do not forget to allow for improvisation,” the old man added parting the waves from his head.

 

Not surprisingly given the capacities and potential of our human nature, we are not bereft of majestic examples of great teachers. There are many. They rise and set like little suns. Their hearts and minds are fuelled with compassion. The common goal to teach the ability to see. From the ancient world the illustrious Socrates elenctic method notwithstanding, symbolizes [and represents] in his selfless and sensible person all of the enumerated qualities mentioned above. In more recent times Viktor Frankl embodies the greatness of the teaching vocation and its ecumenical scope borne and realized from within the most terrible atrocity of the holocaust. And from the world’s indigenous cultures we learn the critical importance of the teacher not forgetting to draw upon his or her experience and background in the passing on of knowledge. For the community of believers we turn to Jesus Christ, the highest example of teacher for Christians, who brings the light, and who reveals the way. He who forgives, and who lays down his life for those who both dismiss and accept him. For ultimately, the truly great teacher is the one who heals “every kind of sickness” (Matt 4:23).

“Oh Lord, do not allow for me to take the gift of teaching, if I should indeed possess it, for granted. But rather help me to grow in this most precious of callings and to learn from those who come to 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.” 

On being rejected by those we love

St Joseph the comely

St Joseph the comely

“I know that when a door closes, it can feel like all doors are closing. A rejection letter can feel like everyone will reject us. But a closed door leads to clarity. It’s really an arrow. Because we cannot go through that door, we will go somewhere else. That somewhere else is your true life.” (Tama J. Kieves)

How good it would be if we were loved by everybody and that everybody we met did see the best in us. But would it really? And would it make us wiser or stronger? Nothing hurts more than to be rejected by someone we love. Nothing hurts more than to have people we treasure turn away from us. This might come in the form of a sudden stop in communication or in other more hostile ways. The grief which is felt can be inexpressible. It is altogether different when we are treated as lowly by those we do not know very well. But it too can hurt, yet it is not the same. There are of course, the extreme and very hard cases, when a parent walks away from a child, or a formerly devoted spouse walks away from their partner. Then there are those great friendships where years have been given over to them and which have been sustained with much grace and plenty of love. The old and trusted friend withdraws his or her hand to walk away. How do we respond? To say that they were not “true” loves or “real” friends in the first place, does little to soften the pain. What can we do?

There are various ways we can come to grips with this awful happening, for we are each gifted with unique experiences and charisms. And it is upon these that we must call upon during such times that we may not become entirely disconsolate. The rejection from a loved one can give validation to our most hidden insecurities and fears. It is the cruellest and most dangerous of all the rejections. Sensitive and tender hearts have often responded too quickly, with catastrophic results. To such difficult questions, where grief and mental torment are involved, there are no easy answers. The confrontation is real and terrible and hurts the bones. Often there are additional issues of perceived shame or guilt. Our identities seem to be taken away from us. Trust is also lost. Our beliefs are shaken to the core.

Though every situation is different, we all share in the human condition and of having some idea of how the “other” might feel during shared experiences, whether physical or mental. If you tell me you thirst, I have understanding. If you tell me your head hurts, I can understand that too. If you tell me you grieve because of a great loss in your life, I also have some comprehension. Though in each case it can only be by degrees, for the experiences and our reflective natures, still remain unique. But there is common ground and it is from here, this solid and proven place, we can be saved and strengthened. The great lessons are not too far away, if only we should endure and search and never, ever lose hope.

There is a higher purpose or reason behind every great love and every heartbreaking betrayal, and both come with their hidden gifts and powerful graces. We would all much prefer the “great love”. But let us also not recoil from the heartbreak. It is good that we persevere and do strong battle knowing that it is only through the fire that steel is hardened. It is first made soft and malleable, to be brought to the ideal place known only to that element, where its properties are encouraged to their full potential. It is through these excruciating losses, which will often enough break an unhealthy cycle of co-dependency, that we can gain profound insights into life. That is, a less cloudy revelation as to the ultimate purpose of our existence; a deeper understanding of the complexities and contradictions of human nature; a more “nuclear” vision to love and forgiveness; another chance at becoming the men and women we were meant to become; the realization of our strength and power of our spirit. The all-important lesson, too, that bitterness and animosity are an enormous waste of time and a loss of valuable energy. “When you have been insulted, cursed, or persecuted by someone,” writes Saint Mark the Ascetic, “do not think of what has happened to you, but of what will come from it, and you will see that your insulter has become the cause of many benefits to you, not only in this age, but in that which is to come.”

These are ways which bring us closer to the sacred, to those things which our collective religious experience has associated with the divine.

Maybe we have given all we can to the “other”. Perhaps it is now time for them to move on, to explore other horizons vital to the unfolding of their own story. Maybe we have been one of those beautiful little tiles of a greater mosaic, little in the bigger scheme of things but enormously crucial. Maybe we have nothing more to give and we have done our job.  We should avoid any thought which might now try to talk us into believing that these people are wicked when only yesterday they were righteous. Of course, all this implies the equality to the relationship, for when an adult hurts or walks away from a child it will call for a different response and a different type of resilience. And yet we know from those who have experienced this dreadful hurt, that this too can be overcome and conquered. Here we can find our peace and turn our pain into a priceless jewel. And though there will be times when the recollection will still hurt and yes, even bludgeon us during the night, it is important to remember: this too, it will pass.

“He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).

Other doors will open. One of the secrets is to wait, to not force these doors, to allow and to give time for providence to work.

In the Old Testament Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37:18-36). What was worse, they had even thought about killing him. “When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they recognized him in the distance. As he approached, they made plans to kill him.” Joseph both endured and he forgave, to rise up to become the second most powerful man in all of Egypt, next to the Pharaoh.

“Dear Father do not allow for me to crumble and break should I ever be rejected by a loved one, do not let for my heart to grow cold that I might not forget that there was much beauty and joy in there too, amidst the sorrow. I want to remember that I was an important part of another’s unfolding story and that my own is not yet over.”

Hope

“And you shall be secure, because there is hope; yes, you shall dig about you, and you shall take your rest in safety” (Job 11:18).

George Frederic Watts  Hope  (1886)

George Frederic Watts Hope (1886)

Hope is my favourite word. It has helped me survive and not give up looking for meaning during hard times when all appeared lost. It gave substance to the other great words which I needed to trust in: love, faith, and prayer. Why do we place such confidence in these profoundly spiritual expressions of life? I think one of the reasons is because of our 'expectation', that not only are these movements into grace possible, but also do-able. Outside the living-out of hope, this longing for delivery and restoration, how else are we to put into practice those other hope-inspired acts which give purpose and meaning to our lives? Hope is the opposite to despair. It means refusing to surrender or to believe there is no way out. Hope can change everything, and it usually does. Hope is “to bend your ear over your almost shattered lyre,” recollecting George Frederic Watts's evocative painting “Hope” (1886), “to catch the music from the last remaining string.” Needless to say, hope can be experienced in different ways, like our unique reaction to the ringing of a doorbell past midnight.