There are two ways I come upon new ideas. The first, the short way, is when I seek out interesting things that other people have shared, or written about, or told me about. The second, the long way, is when something I do is critiqued by someone else.
My first instinct upon being critiqued is to resist or explain. That isn’t what I intended. That isn’t quite what I did. There was context. There were other factors.
That isn’t me, please don’t think it is.
But I also believe that the core of a person is much smaller than we often allow it to be, and the rest of a person is much more malleable that we like to admit. Circumstance, society, desire, stress, unmet needs, intentions—all these things change “who we are” from moment to moment. It may be that we always express some of our core, but there is so much noise in that signal.
Is it any surprise that sometimes a critique feels like an indictment?
I suspect this is true for a lot of people: that it’s hard to sort out a critique of your choices from a critique of your self. For all the vaunted individualism of American society, I think we are not very good at being individuals. We lose track of where our selves end and our choices begin; of where our choices impact ourselves and where they impact others; of where others’ choices fail to reflect who they are. Our individualism is of the brittle, defensive sort.
I have come to recognize that sort of individualism as stagnation. If I wrap up all my choices, desires, behaviors, and thoughts in a bundle of “me,” it becomes very hard to tease them apart and improve them. They lock together in an impenetrable tangle, and then external critiques really do become critiques of myself—not of my core self, but of my rigid inability to change or grow. And that is very hard to hear.
The other sort of individualism, the sort I aspire to, is the sort where you create who you are. I want to make choices about who my core self will be, and how I will make it better. I want to be intentional about how I express myself, and to winnow out the influence of stress and circumstance and bias. I want to be able to hear tough critiques as opportunities rather than attacks.
So, when receiving critiques, I try to remember to bristle and think at the same time. I’ve tried to dampen the former and sharper the latter, and sometimes I succeed more than other times. Sometimes I remember not to confuse my every choice with my core self, and sometimes I can think carefully and deeply about how to make better choices.
And sometimes I’m going to fail. Sometimes I’m going to learn things by making a mistake, and affecting someone else with that mistake, and being critiqued. But I think that’s okay. After all, those are the critiques that stay with me. Those are the phrases I remember years later, that still influence who I am and choose to be today.
The things we learn best, I think, are the things we have to learn the long way round.
Your concept of a ‘core self’ raises a lot of questions. Of course it’s all been lumped into the one question “Nature vs Nurture”. This has given me pause to really ask, “What is the core self?” You are very right about how outward affectations and choices can get all tangled up with the true inner self. But how does one actually ‘sort it all out’?
Since I have become somewhat housebound, I’ve had to dig deep to find true strength in dealing with current and past issues in my life. What I have found is that we are not the sum total of our possessions, thoughts, and actions. Who we really are has been made by God and transcends the temporal. All our talents and skills are there in the DNA. The manner in which we approach life is there. Inclinations and bents are also there. I believe my life is a challenge to rise above the broken places and to become a better and holy person. I realize that even with all my strengths and weaknesses, I can’t do it alone. I need other people and God. The ‘rugged individualism’ is just an affectation. People will often buy things to reinforce their version of who they think they are; I know! I did this for a long time and just ended up with a lot of clutter and a frustrated heart. Now I am not defined by possessions but rather by the Lord Himself. I need to be constantly challenged to grow and go beyond my petty perceptions of reality. It’s hard. It’s ‘losing your religion’ on a deep level. It’s a place where I’ve come to see that a lot of what I thought was right was wrong! That old Fire Sign Theater title “Everything You Know Is Wrong” best describes the last 15 years of my life. Things I held dear (certain ideas and solutions) have crumbled into dust. It’s hard to stay open and vulnerable to this kind of change. But I have known people who have refused to be open to this and they suffer a mean existence. Everything is a criticism to them and to their concept of who they are. No meaningful exchange of controversial ideas is possible with these sorts. I am no better than these people but I still wouldn’t want to exist in the place where they are. So keep reminding us to be open to a little critiquing and thinking about things in a different perspective. Thanks for sharing your thoughts
I don’t know if I know what the core self is, but I do think that it’s changeable. That can be profoundly disconcerting thought, because we like to think of ourselves as having a self of some sort; the idea that we could change who we are in some deep sense threatens the continuity. And we have cognitive biases towards continuity that rewrite our memories to be consistent with our present selves: we externalize and explain away what happened before when it doesn’t easily mesh with our current self projected into the past. But I also think the idea that you can change almost all of who you are is very freeing–it means you can choose to be different, and when you run into something you dislike about yourself, you aren’t stuck with it. I might have to write on that in a while to work it out.