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Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work: Offering Criticism

When we approach another to offer criticism, we must be sure that we do so without malice, and with the positive intent to help, as we too would like to be treated.
This chapter is from the book

Justice on the Train: Offering Criticism

There are many places that are consciously designed to teach us spiritual lessons: churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, meditation centers, nature retreats, and so on. These places are usually quiet oases away from our noisy lives, where we can focus on personal growth and nurture our relationship with a higher purpose. Much of our greatest architecture is devoted to these structures, which usually rely on the powerful combination of symbolic spaces and choreographed ritual to facilitate a spiritual connection. At one time or another, the majority of Americans attend one of these places.

I’d like to suggest an addition to the list. This place does not have a grand edifice, but it shares many of the required attributes of a great spiritual center. It brings together a regular group of people in common purpose. It has ritual that is silently understood by most of its participants. For those who are so inclined, it offers the opportunity for quiet meditation, study, or meaningful dialogue with a friend, or a chance to meet someone new. On occasion, it provides a stage for high drama, where human passions are exposed and often resolved. So I’d like to suggest that we add this to our list of great spiritual places: the Metro-North New Haven commuter train.

I take this train in and out of Manhattan every weekday and have discovered that this train is a spiritual laboratory where unexpected lessons can be learned on any given day. Here, in a worn-out, narrow, long, low box, people are crowded together, forced to sit or stand close to strangers who are literally moving toward a common destination. This environment creates interactions that, normally easily avoided or dismissed, must be confronted directly. Moral, ethical, and spiritual dilemmas naturally arise, such as:

  • Will the standing man wake the sleeping young woman and ask that she take her bag off the adjacent seat so he can sit down? If so, will he speak to her? Will she smile at him or just grunt and go back to sleep? Should he leave her alone and accept that he must remain standing?
  • Will the man who is positioning himself directly in front of the opening doors move to the side to allow others to enter and leave, or will he push forward to grab one of the few remaining seats? Should someone say something? Isn’t he as entitled to a seat as anyone else?
  • Will anyone ask the aspiring young businessman to please wait until after he has left the train to make his cell-phoned sales pitch—or at least to speak in a lower voice? Is he aware that he is disturbing others? Does he care? Should he? Who sets these rules anyway?
  • Should I talk to the man across the aisle who looks strangely familiar? Should I offer my seat to that elderly man standing by the door? Should I say something to the woman sitting next to me, who seems to be struggling with a painful personal issue? Can I help? Is any of this my business?

These little dramas happen daily, and I often spend my time on the train pondering these things. Recently, I witnessed an incident that dramatically illustrates an important spiritual concept. The train was docked in Grand Central Station, and I entered early—fifteen minutes before the scheduled departure time. There were very few people on the train, and I took a seat across the aisle from a young man. He had put one of his feet on the seat directly in front of him and was comfortably reading a newspaper. A middle-aged man, dressed in a crisp suit and tie, entered the train. He scanned the car and suddenly saw the man with his leg on the seat. He quickly walked over to the young man, stopped, and stood over him with his hands on his hips.

“Do you behave like this at home?” the middle-aged man asked. “Is this how you sit at home, with your feet on the furniture?”

The seated man slowly looked up from his newspaper, then quietly and sarcastically muttered, “Yes, sometimes I do,” and returned to his reading.

The older man’s face reddened. He pushed the young man’s newspaper aside and said in a louder voice, “I’m talking to you.”

“Get your hands off my paper,” the other hissed. “What’s your problem?”

“Get your damned foot off the seat!” the standing man shouted. “Do you think that you are the only person on this train? How is someone supposed to sit there after your filthy feet have been on it?”

“Why don’t you mind your own business and go sit somewhere else?” the young man replied, his voice cracking. “There’s a train full of empty seats!”

“This is my business. You are a rude, inconsiderate man, and I’ll sit wherever I damn-well feel!” the middle-aged man retorted, then abruptly sat down right next to the younger man, who shook his head in disbelief.

“You gotta’ be kidding me!” the young man laughed.

“We’ll see who is laughing,” the older man smirked. “How would you like it if I put my foot on your chair?” Then he turned and put his feet on the younger man’s lap, inadvertently kicking his knee.

“You f-cking kicked me!!!” the younger man screamed. “What are you, some kinda’ nut?” Then he shot up from his seat, hurried past the now-smiling older man, and muttered, “I’ll just go sit elsewhere.”

“Ah, another one bites the dust,” the middle-aged man crowed, as he relaxed in his seat, triumphant in his victory over the forces of rudeness.

Here, on the train, was a morality drama worthy of Broadway. Actually, it was better than a Broadway play because it was real, and it carried a profound message. This was a three-minute act starring real people engaged in real struggle. The younger man had broken the rules of the train, and the older man was determined to right this heinous wrong. On the surface, it seemed to be no more than this. But the subtleties of the drama displayed an essential truth about the nature of personal criticism. Certainly the older man was right; people should not put their feet on the seats. By his actions, the offense was removed, the seat was made available for others, and the rules were enforced. Justice seemed to have been served. But was this an effective tactic? Certainly the younger man did not leave feeling that he had learned a new rule of etiquette. We can easily imagine that he will put his feet on the seat again, perhaps simply to spite the older man (“No one can tell me where to put my feet!”). We can also easily recognize that the older man did not speak to the younger man with helpful intention. He took great pleasure in his victory and seemed to have especially enjoyed shaming the younger man.

Of course, there are situations in which we should speak out; when we see that someone’s actions are causing harm to himself or to others, or when we hear false statements that could lead to misunderstandings and negative outcomes. At those times we are obligated to do or say something. Unlike the older man on the train, though, how can we communicate this effectively? In The Book of Leviticus is an interesting quote about the nature of criticism that sheds some light on this question:

  • You will rebuke your fellow, but do not bear sin because of him.

This is an often-misunderstood quote. It requires that we correct someone who has done something wrong but then links this rebuke to bearing sin. Often this sin is seen as the failure to rebuke the wrong-doer, but this is an incorrect reading. We have to look at the words immediately preceding and following this quote to get a fuller picture. Here we find first the impassioned plea:

  • Do not hate your brother in your heart.

Then afterward comes the most essential statement in the entire Bible:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

The proximity of these statements teaches us that when we approach another to offer criticism, we must be sure that we do so without malice, and with the positive intent to help, as we too would like to be treated. As demonstrated by the drama on the train, an unexamined, unrestrained eagerness to criticize others can lead to unnecessary hurt, shame, and embarrassment. And in its most extreme form, we might even take pleasure in rebuking another, perhaps to satisfy an unconscious need to feel secure by dominating or controlling others, or to redress our own unexplored experience of shame. If we carry this attitude, our criticism will actually backfire, and the sin we bear as a result of our failure to treat the other with respect and compassion is our own diminished relationship with others and a weakening of our connection to the Source of our highest potential.

In his comprehensive volume about ethics, You Shall Be Holy, Joseph Telushkin lists six questions that we must ask ourselves before criticizing others:

  1. Am I being fair, or am I exaggerating?
  2. Will my words hurt the other person’s feelings; and if so, how can I express myself without inflicting too much pain?
  3. How would I feel if someone criticized me this way?
  4. Am I enjoying the prospect of offering this criticism?
  5. Is my criticism confined to a specific act or trait?
  6. Are my words nonthreatening and, at least in part, reassuring?

This is a difficult and exacting list, and most of us, at times, fall short of this high standard. This may especially be a challenge when we “know” that we’re right (my favorite excuse). We must be very diligent and aware, however, because when we act carelessly in criticizing, we not only hurt others, but we do, as the words of Leviticus tell us, actually damage ourselves, our spiritual growth, and our sense of well-being. When we offer criticism, we should first check our intentions and begin with a heart free of hate, followed by a commitment to compassion. Of course, you do not need to wait for a ride on the train to put this in practice....

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