When You Can’t Win

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
-Jesus (Matthew 11:16-19)

I find this passage very relatable, and, because of that, kind of comforting.

Jesus says: John the Baptist fasted, and he gets called demon-possessed. I eat and drink, and people call me a glutton and a wino. (“Wino” is actually a pretty literal rendering of the word translated as “drunkard” above―no joke!)

For my part, I notice that sometimes I come across as kind of laid-back, or even passive (which is totally fair…sometimes, and about some things…), and sometimes people are uncomfortable with this. So they tell me that I should be more assertive. But then there are times when I am more assertive, and it turns out that people don’t actually like that. They see it as threatening, or inappropriate, or jarring.

This series of illustrations from a few years ago draws attention to just a few of the different sets of contradictory advice that women in particular tend to receive. It’s no secret that, as the article points out―whether in the workplace, dating, or other settings―women are regularly told to stick up for themselves, but then get called things like “bossy,” “aggressive,” or “a handful” if they do. Women are regularly assumed to be not as smart as men, but then are considered intimidating and out of place when they do speak up with a particularly intelligent insight.

I think about this quote (of complex origins), which, to be honest, I think I first saw in an acquaintance’s e-mail signature several years ago: “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

I think the quote stuck with me because it struck a chord. I really like avoiding criticism. Or rather, I really don’t like being criticized. It’s no fun at all. The experience of feeling criticized tends to draw out angry, lie-filled (and typo-filled) tweets from some people―and self-doubting, quietly anxious introspection from others.

It’s worth saying that criticism, of course, can be very important and helpful. It’s good to listen to criticism carefully and engage with it thoughtfully―even though most of us don’t find that easy to do.

But criticism can also be paralyzing. It is easy, at least for some of us, to give it so much weight in our lives that we step back from something we are doing because of it. We quit speaking about something that is important to us, or we try to change something about ourselves that maybe wasn’t ever meant to be changed. It’s easy, perhaps, not to be critical enough about the criticism we receive.

Perhaps situations where we relate to John the Baptist the demon-possessed and Jesus the wino―where we feel like we can’t avoid criticism no matter what we do―can spur us to dig deeper within ourselves for a guiding compass more reliable than other people’s estimations. Sometimes criticism comes our way just because other people have a limited perspective. They may be like children calling to one another: we played the flute for you and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn. Their reactions and advice might not actually be appropriate for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

As someone who has now (by getting an MDiv) dipped a toe into the world of religious academia, I really enjoyed this recent podcast, where Dr. Daniel White Hodge, James Howard Hill Jr., and Jorge J. Rodriguez V have a great conversation about navigating academia without selling your soul.

One thing that stood out to me from this conversation was the idea of remembering who you are, and remembering who you’re working for. When things get confusing, and mentors and other academic/religious elders are giving you conflicting advice―or advice that doesn’t necessarily match with your own vision and hopes in life―remember who you are, and who you’re doing all this for. Remember the communities you come from. Remember your family and your spouse and their visions for what a flourishing life looks like. And if the decisions you make, based on all that, go against the wisdom of the academy, or of more experienced scholars, that’s okay. You’re not working to fuel the machine of the academy. Your life and dignity is worth more than that.

I think this idea suggests some potentially good ways to measure and evaluate the criticisms we receive. Does the person offering criticism share my vision for the flourishing of my life, family, and communities? What are this person’s expectations for me? Who do they want me to be―and is this who I am, and who I want to be?

If we’re attempting to do anything at all meaningful in this world, we can’t meet everyone’s expectations. We can’t avoid criticism from everyone. But we can learn to thoughtfully sort through the criticism we receive, learn from it, and not let it derail us.

My sense is that people on the underside of societal power structures often find themselves especially deep in the “can’t win” kind of bind that Jesus and John the Baptist experienced. Fast, and get called demon-possessed; eat, and get called a glutton. Be gentle and nice, and you’re constantly overlooked and underestimated; be assertive and set boundaries, and you get called crazy or disruptive or written off as angry.

For women in a patriarchal world, these kinds of perspectives and criticisms matter to us because they are the dominant ones all around us. We have been trained to care too much about what men think and how they criticize us―and this is because we have been trained to believe that their opinions matter more than ours. That their thoughts are more valuable than ours. That their perspectives are more accurate and objective than ours. (As a white person, I defer to people of color to speak about their experiences, but I imagine a similar dynamic often operates there, in which the white gaze dominates and it is difficult to break out of its inordinate power.)

These are not problems with easy solutions. But I do find hope in knowing that Jesus and John the Baptist would understand. They knew what it was like to not be able to avoid criticism. They were both faithful to God―and to their communities, and to themselves―and accepted the reality that not all of the results of this faithfulness would be positive. That it wouldn’t always (or perhaps even often) win people’s affirmation and praise.

I find hope in remembering that for me, as for John and Jesus, people’s criticism (or affirmation) is not where our worth and value lies. It’s not a good measure of success. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, not by popularity or avoidance of tension.

When criticism, or the fear of it, threatens to derail and paralyze us―keeping us small and timid and too hesitant to move or act for good in this world―may we remember who we are and who we are working for. And may we remind one another of these things, as often as we need to hear it.

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