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Posted June 23, 2011

Book: Streams of Contentment
Author: Robert J. Wicks
Sorin Books. Notre Dame, IN. 2011. Pp. 214

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

I have sought to provide brief, poignant, sometimes humorous, and instructive lessons. I have learned about the simple cornerstones of a life well lived. They are not new. I don’t do “new.” Yet, each of these principles and practices are worth dusting off and taking to heart, especially in today’s world.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once questioned, “If the temperature of the bath rises one degree every ten minutes, how will the bather know when to scream?” I don’t think we know when to scream today. The views of modern society have gone astray from early values and understandings that helped us respect ourselves and our community. We have also strayed from the reality that we have such a short time on this earth and should seek to live our fleeting days with meaning, peace, compassion and contentment.

William James, the father of American psychology, believed that an action leads to a habit, a habit to the development of one’s character, and a character leads to destiny. Taking action with the right attitude or psychology as a guide can change our destiny for the better. It provides a more powerful lens to see more clearly the streams of contentment that come with living a more meaningful and simple life as well as being able to share this experience with others.

What follows is a distillation of the principles that I learned long ago, have honed over the years, and practices with myself and my patients.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Mine the Criticisms You Receive from Others, but Don’t Get Carried Away!

A dear friend of mind used to share the following saying about criticism when the time called for it: “The first time someone calls you a horse’s rear end, take offense. If a second person calls you a horse’s rear end about the same thing, think it over. However, if a third person calls you a horse’s rear end, again about the same thing, buy a saddle!”

For most of us, criticism is difficult to accept. It is easy to be a prophet to others, but not to ourselves. One instance of this still comes to my mind even though it happened many, many years ago.

I opened a letter from a very famous churchman in the United States. He was doing wonderful work. However, when I read his note to me, I became furious. I thought to myself, “You are doing very good work, but how you plan to go about it is slick.” Now, as you know, when you become really angry at someone there are two rules to follow: keep your mouth shut and stay away from the phone. So, naturally, I called him.

After I shared with him what I felt, he said we should sit down and chat about it. When we did, the conversation went nowhere. I would give him an illustration and he would have an excuse. I’d give him another illustration and he would have another excuse. Finally, I realized this was ridiculous. I was focusing on the lyrics of his behavior (what he had done) and it was the music of his actions (how he did it) that was really important. I could also see that in trying to present my concerns I had truly messed up the whole encounter. I had hurt him and caused him what we call in my business “narcissistic injury.” When that happens, little if anything can be accomplished because you have insulted who the person is rather than focused on his behavior.

As a result, I tried to back out of the encounter with as much grace as I could muster. Then, as I was doing this, he said to me, “You know that when you called and said these things about me, I called up several persons and asked them about you.” As he related to me what he had heard, I realized I wasn’t being called to be prophet to him, he was being called to be a prophet to me. I also came to appreciate something that I don’t like to admit, but which I believe is true: namely, no matter how poor the motivations of the person who says negative things about you are, what they say is true to some extent. If you are able to mine these truths you will truly deepen your self-awareness and be freer to learn in the future. I certainly can attest to this reality in my own life.

Once when I fell into the basement of my psyche because of a series of negative events in my life, I thought to myself, “Well, as long as I am down here, I might as well look around.” What I came to grips with were some of my defenses, fears, and shames. I saw how I had been cowardly and greedy, and had let down those I had recently met along with those I had known for years. The insights were not pretty, but they helped prune me down to size, my real size. There is little to fear when you are simply who you are — nothing more, nothing less.

Living fully requires us to be open to criticism from others. When we close ourselves down we can miss so much helpful information. Unfortunately, when faced with the challenge to do this, because of our fears of failure and criticism we often hold back, defend ourselves, or tell people that they just don’t understand. We also spend too much time worrying about what people will think. Instead, we need to put such undue concerns into their proper place so we don’t get carried away by the criticisms we receive.

In The Te of Piglet, Benjamin Hoff helps us put criticism and the people who offer it in perspective. I dearly love the following story and reflect on it when I get upset over what someone has said to me.

While traveling separately through the countryside one late afternoon, a Hindu, a Rabbi, and a Critic were caught by a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at the same nearby farmhouse.

“That storm will be raging for hours,” the farmer told them. “You’d better stay here for the night. The problem is, there’s only room enough for two of you. One of you’ll have to sleep in the barn.”

“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu. “A little hardship is nothing to me.” He went out to the barn.

A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry,” he told the others, “but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must not intrude into their space.”

“Don’t worry,” said the Rabbi. “Make yourself comfortable here. I’ll go sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother,” he said, “but there is a pig in the barn. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my sleeping quarters with a pig.”

“Oh, all right,” said the Critic. “I’ll sleep in the barn.” He went out to the barn.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the cow and the pig.

Remember this, and you will both mine the criticisms you receive and not become overwhelmed by persons who seem to go around seeing the shortcomings in others (especially you!) With acuity, but fail to ever look at themselves in a fashion that is both kind and clear. If they did look at themselves with clarity, then the way they criticize people wouldn’t be so destructive.

When people chat with me about receiving criticism, they often also broach the topic of giving criticism. When this happens, my response usually is twofold. First, don’t criticize others; just present the concern you have in summary form and let the summary call them to look differently at what they are doing in life. And second, if possible, help people change by creatively having them see the consequences of their behavior.

The best example I have heard of this was in a story from a private school in Washington, DC. It seems they were faced with a difficulty that can arise when children pass on to a new stage in their social development.

A number of twelve-year-old girls were beginning to use lipstick for the first time. The problem developed was they would put it on in the bathroom, which was fine, but then they would press their lips to the mirror leaving dozens of little lip prints. Ths would leave an extra chore for the maintenance crew who came in at night to clean the building. When this happened once, nothing was done. However, when it became a daily ritual for the girls, the principal realized something had to be done.

She called the girls into the bathroom and met them there with the maintenance man. She explained to them that she knew they were doing it for fun, but there were consequences that possible they didn’t know about. She then went on to explain that the custodian had to clean the mirrors every night and this took unnecessary time and energy on his part.

She noted that they were showing obvious disdain for what she was saying and some even yawned and smirked at one another.

Without reacting to them, she went on by saying that possibly they didn’t realize how much effort was required so she wanted them to see what was involved so they could better understand, and she nodded to the maintenance man.

Whereupon he took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it into the toilet, and cleaned the mirror with it. After this, there were no lip prints on the mirrors.

As the person who told me the story aptly noted, “There are teachers . . .and then there are educators.” When we creatively and humbly receive and offer others criticism in an inoffensive manner, the chance of impact will obviously be better.

Table of Contents:

1. Know who you can be now

2. Be clear about what is truly essential

3. Practice a little faithfulness

4. Don’t let go . . .choose!

5. Appreciate more fully everything and everyone in your life now

6. Know what a renewing community really is

7. Beware the tyranny of hope

8. Don’t be fooled by the winters in your life . . .lean back

9. When in trouble, first get the details

10. Stop thinking you are grateful. . .then see what you inherit!

11. Recognize that a little silence and solitude is no small thing

12. Mind your own negative predictions and evaluations

13. Mine the criticism you receive from others, but don’t get carried away!

14. Make new friends with failure

15. Appreciate the real meaning and power of your own “self-whisphers”