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.”

Let us not aspire to be famous

“Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it, we must direct our lives so as to please the fancy of men” (Baruch Spinoza).

An ink and wash sketch on the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias' (Date Unknown)  The Serendipity Project

An ink and wash sketch on the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias' (Date Unknown) The Serendipity Project

Let us not aspire to be famous and to be highly esteemed. These are two of our greatest enemies, and should we ever rise to such dizzy heights (outside the grace and providence of the Creator) these infernal liars will destroy us, and through us they will hurt others. How long will your fame last? What wisdom will it deliver you? What benefit the praise for a season? How will you respond when your flatterers find fault with you? These ‘terrible’ gifts, if not used correctly and put to the service of others, are self-seeking aspirations which ultimately invite hubris and bring injury to the soul. In a beautiful psalm (Ps 72) where the attributes of a great King are enumerated by Solomon, “fame” is connected to the righteous deeds of the royal ruler and it is in this way that “the name endure[s] for ever”. For the ancient Greeks honour and reputation would ordinarily be conferred after death when the evidence of a life could be weighed and tested. Our greatest legacy is our character which is built up invisibly and in secret. Unmerited fame and artificial praise, history has revealed to us, do enormous damage to our spirit (in the sense of our dispositions and attitudes) and they can result in a caricature of the true self. We are weak and frail beings to begin with, and these worldly acclamations only serve to magnify our flaws and vulnerabilities. Honour and glory are often confused with fame. By all means  let us aspire after greatness, it is a different thing altogether. Our fathers and mothers, those who minister to the sick and to the dying, the poor and abused who have not given up on hope, the orphans and those who are hungry, these are the ones to whom honour and glory are due. The quality of worthiness is to be discovered here. It is here, in these disregarded palaces, that truth and reality are to be found. “Lord, I have too often sought the sponsorship of the world, running after its temporal prizes which rust and crumble but You have taken pity on me, and You have bent me, lest I confuse those things which store grace in me with those which steal them away.” 

The Truth

“Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).

Vincent van Gogh  The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix  (1890)

Vincent van Gogh The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix (1890)

Many of us are determined for our Truth to be the ultimate expression of the “supreme reality.” After all, we have invested so much time, and effort, and sacrifice to its defence. We have built our dreams and hopes on its sure foundation. One of the most difficult things is to faithfully hold onto this truth and to go about our life quietly, spreading a little of its light along the way. The danger is when we think we are the exclusive possessors of the revelation which has graciously come down to us. Often enough it is precisely that, our own personalized truth, and not even that of the church or religious community to which we profess to belong. Ever since Pontius Pilate asked the one who was about to be Crucified, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38), we have been challenged as to how we ourselves might respond. Ultimately, it is not so much by our confession that the truth we hold is revealed to the world, but more so by our practice of the virtues. This is wonderfully paradoxical given believers come to truth through faith. The most erudite and inspired theology in the world or indeed the profoundest comprehension of the various dimensions and expositions of truth in mathematics and philosophy, will not quench the thirst of a dying child nor heal the wounds of our neighbour. Often times, the only truths are visceral and come from our agonizing cries for help. The truth will, indeed, set us free, but only to the measure that we extend to it the same degree of grace. And so let us go about our own business of practising compassion through unqualified love, and permit for the Holy Spirit to go about his own simple work of saving.