“You will meet some people who find themselves unreasonably perfect. Unforgivably, unbelievably golden. Stay away from them.”
No one said this to me as I ventured into life as we know it. I do not know why; if I am blessed enough to be referred to by someone as their father someday, it might be one of the first things I tell the little one. In the hospital. Well, not the first. It might be a part of some advice I give as he or she heads off to college. Perhaps. Or maybe he or she will need to learn it on their own.
“They will tell you that they are their own worst critic themselves, but they will fight you bitterly if you ever criticize them or offer suggestions.”
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“I am my own worst critic.” I have heard this sentence many times and I have even heard me say it about myself. I probably said it about myself a few days ago. It is bunk. Most (not all) of the people who declare this (including me) are asking you to verbally pat them on the shoulder, tell them they need to go easier on themselves, congratulate them for their high standards. (Some people truly are too hard on themselves, but they tend to not declare this.)
A critic’s job is to attempt to figure out how something works, usually a work of art, and point out the spots where it is not working or not seeming to work well enough. Where it is failing to communicate. Ironically or not, it is not a job for someone who likes tearing things down. That’s what a reviewer does, and not a good one. (Someone should produce an annual book, “A Guide to Reviewers.” Very few reviewers are critics in the strict sense, because doing real criticism is grueling and gets into the nuts and bolts of a thing. It is a job in which one writes 25 pages on a two-page long, 48-line, poem. [It was “Skunk Hour,” by Robert Lowell.] On the other hand, there are a lot of writers who call themselves reviewers, but really they are critics who figure things out and explain it all to us, and I love reading them.)
I was the type of kid who liked taking things apart and putting them back together, enjoyed the search for the one necessary part that appeared to make the thing run when it was in place. The one part in whose absence the thing did not function. Now, I know that one could call this “slow-motion breaking things,” as very few gadgets that I played with were ever restored to a state one might call “functional,” but it is the outlook of a critic. I also loved doing magic tricks. How does a magic trick work? It isn’t by magic.
I enjoyed diagramming sentences, which is a similar thing. (My sentences do not vary in structure, much, I know, I know.)
If I had been truly my own worst or harshest critic, well, my life might have headed somewhere else. (I might not be writing.) No, I was my “worst” critic in that I did not see things clearly, how things worked and did not work. I was my “harshest” in that I liked, perversely liked, tearing myself down. And then I would feel angry at myself for my failure to: Get published, or finish a degree, or father a family, or something else. (Hey, you! Yeah, you. You want to know how to get published? Shhhh. Come over here. I’ll tell ya. Closer. Ready? FIRST, WRITE SOMETHING!) I never began anything so how could I legitimately moan at the absence of the sweet rewards of success? That is a terrible critic; really, it is just a bully. I was my own worst bully. (I am not that anymore.)
I was perpetually caught between my devil and the deep blue me.
The above is an honest assessment, briefly sketched. Honesty is a rare social commodity. One ought to attempt, at least attempt, to be rigorously honest. Not brutally honest. That particular word pair, “brutally honest,” has become a common phrase of late, and while I do not know its origin I do know that it is empty. A completely empty phrase. Any honest communication, from “I love you” to criticism, is not brutal if it is honest.
“Let me be brutally honest,” she said. “I like that cologne.”
We can be brutal, and it can be honest, but “brutal” trumps anything the word is modifying. When I was young, I learned the art of telling complete truths, honest truths, about TMI matters just to deflect questioners about things I really did not want to talk about. That is brutal honesty, I suppose.
Criticism, or anything, offered as brutal honesty is neither honesty nor is it criticism. It’s just brutal.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 24 asks, “How are you at receiving criticism? Do you prefer that others treat you with kid gloves, or go for brutal honesty?“Because the question was titled, “Handle With Care,” well, here: