Skip to main content

EBS40: The Grace And Peril Of Criticism

Eric Butterworth Speaks: Essays on Abundant Living #40

Delivered by Eric Butterworth on August 8, 1975

Download the PDF for The Grace And Peril Of Criticism

Return to Eric Butterworth Speaks

Someone once said, “Without critics this would be a backward world.” Criticism of customs and conditions brought primitive man out of the trees and caves, and urged a more civilized way of life. And yet, improperly used criticism in our day can be a very harmful habit that can evoke feelings of insufficiency and conflict.

Why is it that criticism is one of the most common human traits? Could it be that carping on another’s weakness gives us a feeling of strength? Is it because we subconsciously feel that the other person is tall and we are small and we want to cut him down to size? Jesus seemed to warn against certain types of criticism in the Sermon on the Mount: “Whosoever shall say ‘thou fool’ shall be in danger of hell fire. First be reconciled to thy brother and then come and offer thy gift.” In Matthew He again addresses this: “Judge not that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.” And, finally, “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

And yet, if Jesus inveighed against harsh judgment, there is a strong sense in His teaching toward self-criticism, for He says, “Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” It was Plotinus who said, “Never cease working on thine own statue.” Certainly, there is no place in the study of our new insight into Truth for the person who is contented to remain “as is”. The Truth should make you highly discontented in a divine sense.

Self-criticism is a kind of mental housecleaning. It is vital to healthy and creative living. You wouldn’t want to live in the dust and debris of a house that hadn’t been cleaned in twenty or thirty years. Yet many of us are living in mental households that haven’t been cleaned in years. We need to look in the mirror and realize that there are many habits and beliefs that need to be discarded.

One of the most important of our “mental housecleaning” chores is ridding ourselves of ridiculous routines and rituals. Routine is just a fancy word for “rut”. Be brave and daring; break your ruts by simple changes. Take a different subway, eat something else for breakfast, approach your day with a different attitude; maximize your innate creative abilities and try the unusual.

When self-criticism is based on a feeling of insufficiency, inferiority, or inadequacy, it can be destructive. But, when used with the faith that there is always a greater potential within, it is extremely useful and wise. We need to always seek to draw more out of ourselves, and rise to higher levels of development. It is important to recognize that “criticism”, as Aristotle coined the term, originally meant “looking for the good”.

Of course, there is the additional challenge of learning how to accept criticism from others. If you realize that most harsh criticism is based on the insufficiency of the person who dishes it out, it’s much easier to live with. You are not the target. Anyone who stands before his peers is open to criticism, and will be criticized often. But this can actually be good for you. What good would parents or teachers or counselors be if they did not help you through criticism? Of course, one must learn to understand himself and to accept the creative benefits of constrictive criticism.

I know what a problem this can be. Through the years I have received a great deal of criticism, much of it in the form of anonymous letters. There’s no avoiding this in public life. To me, this kind of criticism has been a blessing. It has helped me to learn much about myself. The first lesson I learned was that I had a tendency to rebel and overreact to criticism. To overcome this, I had to discover honestly that if the thing was not true, then there was no reason to be upset by it. If there was some truth to it, then let me give thanks for the suggestion. I have always said that my critics have been my best teachers through the years. I suspect that they have been more responsible for my unfoldment than any other influence.

Herbert Hoover was probably one of the most criticized men in American History. Later, he became one of the most universally admired citizens. He was a classic example of a man meeting criticism creatively. Asked in his later years how he was able to handle this type of pressure without bending under the strain, he replied, “My Quaker faith had taught me to keep peace at the center.” With inner peace, you can handle outer change. You can honestly evaluate criticism. You can take the best and leave the rest. When someone criticizes you, forget any malicious intent he may have and look for the good in what he says. Have the strength to take advantage of the relevant and ignore and forget the superflous in what he says.

Another question is, “Should I ever criticize another, and if so, how can I do it?” Sometimes as a friend we owe it to someone to tell him of some fault that is holding him back. As a parent, teacher or employer it is a duty (we would be remiss in our responsibility otherwise) to use some form of constructive criticism. Perhaps the first rule is to stop for a moment and think: “Is it true, is it kind, is it needful?” Then think, “How can I say it in the most tactful way?” As Goethe says, “If we take people as they are we make them worse. If we treat them as if they were what they should be, we make them what they can be.” This is evidencing the process of creative criticism through praise. We have a statement that we use quite often in Unity: “I behold the Christ in you. I salute the Divinity in you. I love and praise and bless the good in you.”

One of the problems for those who study these new insights into Truth is that they become so conscious of the Law of Causation that, when they see a negative effect, they rush to tell the person of what they think is the negative cause. In this way, too many of us become hypercritical. Unfortunately this immature impetuousness drives more people away from the study of Truth than it attracts. Some time ago, an organization with which I was involved engaged the professional services of an expert in a certain field. This individual came to coffee fellowship with several students of our new insight. The professional couldn’t understand why these people were so critical—they constantly inveighed against his wrong thinking and mistaken beliefs. One day he asked, “What’s wrong with these people?” Their intentions were good, but they were rather naive about understanding the right way to apply constructive criticism.

Test yourself in this matter of criticism. Take a whole day for an experiment, and see if you can go through it without speaking a word of criticism. It isn’t easy!

The important thing is to listen to people, not with criticism, but with love. Only love will crowd out a critical temperment. Our goal should be to convert criticism back to its root meaning, “looking for the good.” Here is a statement you might use: “Let something good be said (L.S.G.B.S.).” No matter what the person seems to be, even if you feel that as a teacher or a parent you must make a critical observation, let something good be said. Let your criticism be tempered with praise. Better yet, let it be done entirely through praise.

If you can strive to keep peace at the center, you can reap many benefits from the proper use of constructive criticism.

© 1975, by Eric Butterworth

Return to Eric Butterworth Speaks