When I was a boy, I remember the sing song saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Of course, I have learned that this rhyme is a lie. Words have hurt me in the past, and I have observed how my words have hurt others, too. Thankfully, the past run-ins with painful words have been rooted out by grieving the hurt and then forgiving the offender. By the same token, it has been important to allow those hurt by my words to engage with me over forgiveness and reconciliation. No matter how unpleasant these exchanges are within families, jobs, neighborhoods, you name it, the fruit is stronger bonds of togetherness. This represents one side of growing in communicating and listening. The other side of the coin is something entirely different. Today’s verse hits the nail square on the head:
“Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others” (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22, ESV).
Based on the context of these two verses, the word curse sounds real strong to our modern day ears. I believe that the word criticize easily replaces curse, and it fits my previous paragraph to a tee about words that cause emotional pain. There is something else that appears to be in view. What comes to my mind is the ability to handle criticism for one’s beliefs, actions, creative works, and products made for the marketplace. A popular idiom states that everyone is a critic. I think the above verses speak to this on some level. No matter what I say or do, someone will find something negative to critique and/or criticize. For artists, public officials, famous athletes and the like this is an everyday reality. Basically, these individuals live underneath the microscope. Anything and everything is up for grabs. Privacy is either a false hope or a cruel joke.
Even if public officials and the famous experience this intense scrutiny, this does not mean that they are the only ones who need to learn how to develop a thick skin. Each and every person who has ever lived and died either has succeeded or failed at not taking to heart all the things that people say. It is a hard lesson to learn, especially among close-knit communities whether family, career, or neighborhood. This sort of thing raises the question of identity. Do I need others to affirm or give assent to my beliefs, my work, my appearance, in order to be secure? When I studied film production as a graduate student, I made six short films in three years. Each one needed to viewed and critiqued by my peers and professors. Overall, I found the tone of the critiques to be fair and on point. That being said, it was not comfortable being analyzed, assessed, etc.
During these feedback sessions, some of the exchanges exploded into tirades between a few of my peers and the professors. I found those moments difficult to endure. My friend, Joel Franco, sat through those same sessions while we attended film school at Loyola Marymount. We shared our experiences at the time. They were painful and life-transforming. We came away with the ultimate reality of learning to sit there and take it. Now, do not misunderstand me, I am not saying that one’s critics and peers play by the rules with their criticism. Some things go too far, but that is a separate issue. Here is the bottom line: a movie is meant for the public to experience; therefore, the audience has the right to evaluate it. When King Solomon writes, “do not take to heart all the things that people say,” he means to say, “keep your composure, don’t let it get to you.” This is one of the hardest and most difficult realities to learn as an artist.
When it comes to producing anything for the public to consume, the reality is to expect the audience to respond to it. Should responses be respectful or honoring? I think it is wise to lay down rules of engagement in highly specific contexts with the goal being to uphold each other’s dignity. At the same time, I still want to point out that there is no place for coercing respectful criticism. If I bring this down to a more personal level, not everyone will like me. Some may not like my voice or my views, the way I walk, and the list is endless. It seems to me that a basic part of life has to do with developing a thick skin toward what others think and say about me. According to King Solomon’s words, humility should be the motivator because “…[my] heart knows that many times… [I] have cursed others” (Ecclesiastes 7:22, ESV) When I open my mouth to criticize, do I want others to respond in the same tone as me? Am I someone who lives a double standard in this area? Do I find my worth and dignity as a person from the Lord or from people?