Monday, January 28, 2013

Two Words on Criticism

I've just arrived home from an exhausting, deeply satisfying weekend gathering of the new Affirmation leadership.  It was spiritual, powerful, and exciting.  I have never come away from a gathering of gay Mormons feeling more deeply bonded to brothers and sisters who are committed to such an important work of gathering, reconciling, and healing.

We rolled up our sleeves, worked hard, and accomplished the difficult task we set out to accomplish, namely, translating a broad vision into concrete goals and objectives, with measurable outcomes that will tell us whether we're succeeding or failing.

Seeing that word "failing" in front of me in black and white on the video screen reminds me that there are lives at stake.  It's sobering.

We also had plenty of time to relax together.  We were gathered in a city full of sights that I had no desire to see.  I couldn't pull myself away from the fellowship of this astounding, inspiring group of LGBT Mormons and our brave, energetic, wise, straight allies.  We ate, we talked and talked and talked and talked, we played games, sang hymns around the piano (God is very pleased when the gays sing!), and then we talked some more.  We needed that time of bonding because the work ahead will be difficult and will stress us in different ways, sometimes to our limits.

Sunday afternoon, the majority of the gathering participants had dispersed.  A few of us still waiting for late flights, however, had gathered in the home of Greg Prince (author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism).  We spent the entire afternoon in scintillating conversation on a variety of topics related to faith, Mormon history, and the "gay Mormon moment."  Our conversation always ranged back into the topic at hand; serious reflection on the work Affirmation has cut out for itself.

At some point, individuals brought to my attention scathing on-line criticism of Affirmation's new leadership.  The miracles of modern technology and social networking meant they could show me in real time our names (my name!), singled out for attack, and from more than one source.  In one source that was pointed out to me, we were being attacked by an LDS conservative.  In another source, we were being savaged by an LGBT ex-Mormon.  One criticism had been brought to my attention by a long-time straight ally, the other by one of the youngest and newest members of the Affirmation team.

To be honest, I wasn't surprised in the least, given the sources.  In fact I don't generally read in those sources and don't worry too much what they have to say, because the kind of criticism that was being leveled against us was pretty predictable, and nothing I would normally bother to respond to.  But I saw the pained look in the eyes and sensed the worry of the individuals who'd brought them to my attention.

Here's what I will say.  I'll confine myself to two short words on the subject.

Word 1: If you are being criticized by no one, it is the surest sign that you are doing no thing of any good to anybody.  The easiest way to avoid public criticism all together is to do nothing.  And the more difficult and important the work you are trying to do, the more certain you are to garner criticism, and the harsher that criticism is likely to be.

So do not be dismayed by harsh criticism, especially when you are acting out of a passion that flows from deep within, as we are in Affirmation right now.  That criticism is the surest sign that we are on the path that needs to be trodden, right here and right now.

One of our central tasks has to do with reconciliation.  That means there are sides that are unreconciled.  That means we have volunteered to enter an arena where we will inevitably take fire from both sides.  So all is well.  Criticism means we're right in the spot we intended to put ourselves.

Word 2: If someone is taking the time to criticize you, it means they feel some stake in what you are trying to accomplish.  What they say may be unfair, it may not take all the facts into account (because they are not in a position to know the facts), it may be mean spirited or lazy.  (The most vocal critics are often the ones who will gladly take up a poison pen, but not lift a finger to help.)  But if they have a stake in what we're trying to do, they have the right to criticize and we may have an obligation to at least consider the import of what they say to the outcomes we hope to achieve.

At the very least criticism may have the benefit of showing us our blind spots, or reminding us of the very real challenges we face.  So -- while we shouldn't let criticism dissuade us from pursuing our passions -- if we can find the largesse of spirit to consider whether there is something to it, it may strengthen us.

It should, in any event, be a reminder to us of the seriousness with which we should take important work.  Criticism can be like the lights on the edges of an airport runway, showing us the extremes we're trying to steer between as we're coming in for a landing.

Bottom line...  Criticism is no cause for discouragement, but rather the opposite.  Take heart in the fact that no great reward will come to us without engaging ourselves in ways that expose us to critics.  And let their criticism spur us to commit ourselves more deeply to a cause, the success of which will benefit not only us, but ultimately our critics as well.

Finally, the sting of criticism can remind us of the value of words of encouragement, love and support.  We LGBT folks have already experienced deeply the sting of unsparing judgment by folks who don't understand the challenges we face.  Those of us who are united in a good cause need to use criticism like salt -- sparingly!  We need to love each other unconditionally and be unstinting in our praise for the good we see around us.  Of course there will be times when we need to collectively reevaluate and critique our own efforts.  If we didn't, we wouldn't be serious about the work.  But I find I'm most empowered to self-criticize when I am able to do so in an environment of unconditional love and support. 

If we are truly doing this for all of us, and our actions always flow from our love and our truest, deepest passions, we will find a way.


Dean said...

I really appreciate your perspective, John. You have patience similar to the man I am dating.

J G-W said...

Dean, since writing this I've been made aware of even more unkind criticism. It's tough, especially in the LGBT community. Our families and communities have systematically undermined us, and then we turn around and do it to each other. I used to call it "oppression sickness." Whatever it is, I hope we can gradually heal ourselves enough to understand the dynamics and break the vicious cycles.

alan said...

Reconciliation with the Church is a tricky thing, particularly at this moment. If you look at the site "Mormon and Gays," for example, it demonstrates movement toward more dialogue, openness and kindness, but at the same time it demonstrates a retrenchment and co-optation of "gay" toward a more concerted maintenance of heterosexism. The way I think about it is the following: "Brethren and sistren, let's bring same-sex attracted people out of the closet to help them be faithful. It's difficult to be administer to folks in the closet because of the door between." Notice here that there's NO movement whatsoever on the sin question. The fact that people will talk more about gayness in the Church MIGHT lead to a change in thinking on the sin question, OR more likely, it will lead to an expansion of Northstar-like thinking and strategies.

If I look at Affirmation's response to "Mormons and Gays," I find it to be quite lacking. There's an acknowledgement of the positives (kindness, openness) and no acknowledgement of the overarching negative (except for the caveat that "Affirmation will be here" for those for whom same-sex relationships are important). Personally, I wonder how firm the organization is on the question of the end goal. I half-expected to read Affirmation's about page and not see "[we] believe that same sex relationships are entitled to the same recognition and blessings as heterosexual relationships."

Back in the day of the Civil Rights movement, when equal treatment was demanded, it was demanded now, not "in the years to come." Affirmation currently seems to be okay with "in the years to come." It is difficult for me to tell whether this is a mature stance or a weak one.

alan said...

*keeps reading Affirmation site*...although admittedly, Affirmation's words on the amicus brief are more pointed. So, it's kinda hard to tell...sorry, I haven't been keeping up on the who's-who of Affirmation...