During his presidency, Abraham Lincoln was greatly respected and greatly reviled. Blamed for plunging the nation into civil war, he was die president people loved to hate. Those who opposed his views regarding the war and slavery as well as his efforts to keep the nation united were vocal and uninhibited in denouncing him.
One day during the darkest days of his presidency, Lincoln was walking down a street near the Capitol in Washington when an acquaintance caught up with him. As they walked, the man brought up the subject of the growing anti-Lincoln sentiment flowing in Washington and throughout the country.
With brutal honesty the man related to Lincoln many of the stories outlining attacks on Lincoln and his policies. As the man spoke, Lincoln remained completely silent and absorbed in his own thoughts.
Finally, the exasperated man asked: "Mr. Lincoln, have you heard me? Are you listening to me?"
Lincoln stopped, looked directly at him and said: "Yes, I have heard you, but let me tell you a story. You know that during the time of the full moon it is the habit of all the dogs to come out at night and bark and bark and bark at the moon. This keeps on as long as the moon is clearly visible in the sky." Then he stopped speaking and continued his walk.
Confused by Lincoln's response, his exasperated companion persisted: "Mr. Lincoln, you haven't finished your story. Tell me the rest of it!" Once again Lincoln stopped walking, and said: "There is nothing more to tell. The moon keeps right on shining."
President Lincoln is a good role model for managing criticism. Although he was aware of his shortcomings and knew that many highly respected and influential people disagreed with him, the president listened to the criticism and still followed his own intuitive sense that his policies would eventually win over critics and unify the country.
One of life's challenging realities is the fact that there are always people around us who are faultfinders, people who seldom see the good but are quick to point out die negative. Like Lincoln, all of us need to find ways of hearing criticism without being detracted or destroyed by it. Here are several suggestions for clergy to deal with criticism creatively.
Do not be intimidated by criticism
Fear of criticism is a greater threat than the criticism itself. People who are intimidated by their critics live timid, hesitant, and invisible lives. Elbert Hubbard says, "To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." Cowering in the face of criticism always produces a negative impact upon life in general.
"Fear of criticism can affect you in ways both trivial and serious," notes Napoleon Hill in his book, Keys to Success. "It can lead you to buy the latest fashions, the fanciest cars, the most sophisticated stereo audio systems because you fear being left behind the times, out of step with what 'everyone' is doing. More insidiously, it can prevent you from presenting and acting on ideas that are revolutionary, ideas that would give you independence. It robs you of your individuality and your faith in yourself." Although die fear of criticism is a common one, face the fear with courage and conviction. Remind your self you can feel the fear and still move forward. By refusing to be intimidated by critics, you rob them of their power to sap your initiative and creativity. As you move for ward, opposing voices will shrink and shrivel in the presence of your determination.
Move from being emotionally fragile to emotionally resilient
Some people let themselves become far too delicate emotionally and, as a result, are extremely vulnerable to criticism of any kind. The antidote is to work at building emotional muscles so that you are stronger, more confident and less influenced by the opinions of other people.
One effective way of moving from being an emotionally fragile person to being a stronger and more emotionally resilient one is by locating and reciting biblical affirmations for yourself. Some excellent biblical affirmations include: " 'Be strong with the Lord's mighty power'" (Eph. 6:10, NLT); "'Be strong and do not fear'" (Isa. 35:4), and "'Take courage and work, for I am with you'" (Haggai 2:4, NLT). Put these biblical statements in a place where you can't avoid looking at them at least three times a day. When you see them, read them aloud to reinforce them and have them permeate your mind and spirit.
Look for wisdom in criticism
While many criticisms that come our way are unwarranted and unjustified, some criticism is not mere faultfinding but "friendly advice." Train your mind and spirit to sift out critical remarks that are simple non sense from those that contain wisdom. When asked about criticisms frequently hurled at her, Eleanor Roosevelt replied: "Criticism makes very little dent upon me, unless I think there is some real justification and something should be done."
Responding positively to the wisdom in a critical comment can make us better people as well as enhance a career. Arthur Gordon tells of standing in a long line at an airport early one morning. Due to inclement weather, flights were delayed and canceled. Ahead of him in the line was an irate passenger. His plane had been delayed for over an hour. The plane crew ran out of coffee and he was furious. In a loud, angry voice, the man was berating the airline official behind the counter. The agent was patient and polite, frequently apologizing for the delay and inconvenience. In spite of the agent's attempt to defuse the matter, the passenger continued to vent his anger.
Finally, an elderly woman, also standing in the line, made her way to the angry passenger and gently tapped him on the shoulder. "Do you mind if I say something to you," she said mildly. The passenger turned, looking surprised. "Sir," the woman explained, "you have just traveled across an entire continent in five or six hours. You were lifted above the clouds and drawn here through the skies where you saw the dawn rushing to meet you. You have just experienced a miracle that mankind could only dream about for thousands of years. And you stand there complaining about having no coffee!"
There was a long pause. Then the passenger replied quietly, "Madam, you are quite right. Thanks for setting me straight. It will be a long time before I forget what you just said." With that his angry confrontation with the airline official ended.
Take comfort from the life of Christ
There is a valuable insight from Dale Carnegie. In his book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,1 he writes: "Even if you and I are lied about, ridiculed, double-crossed, knifed in the back, and sold down the river by one out of every six of our most intimate friends let's not indulge in an orgy of self-pity. Instead, let's remind ourselves that that's precisely what happened to Jesus. One of His twelve most intimate friends turned traitor for a bribe that would amount, in our modern money, to about nineteen dollars. Another one of His twelve most intimate friends openly deserted Him the moment He got into trouble, and declared three times that he didn't even know Jesus and swore as he said it. One out of six! That's what happened to Jesus. Why should you and I expect a better score?"
The lesson from the life of Christ is this: anytime we are providing leader ship and engaged in making our home, our church, or our neighbor hood a better place, there will be criticism. Expect it and don't be devastated by it.
Be guided by wisdom from other leaders
Among the most criticized people in the world are United States presidents. Yet, they continue to lead, create policy and generally be at peace with themselves. When criticized, take comfort and guidance from the attitudes of some of them.
Ronald Reagan once explained: "I don't pay much attention to critics. The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who can, and those who criticize." Or consider these words from Theodore Roosevelt: "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and conies short again and again . . . who knows the greater enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
Finally, when it comes to critics and criticisms, remember to follow the advice of Jesus: '"Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!'" (Matt. 5:44, TLB) While this may seem impossible to do while you are reeling under undeserved criticism, Jesus' advice is sound. Praying for those who hurt you brings an inner calm, peace of mind and, ultimately, freedom from the pains of criticism.
1 Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948).