Dealing with Complaints and Criticisms

In the course of working on one of the books I’m writing this year, I’ve been re-reading my notes from various teachings of Buddhist lamas – some my own notes from teachings I attended when I lived in Nepal and India and others from tapes of talks I listened to during that same time.

One of the talks I just read was a commentary on a text called the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation. It contained an instruction, having to do with how we deal with criticism or blame, that seems to me a useful (albeit challenging) one regardless of whether one calls oneself a Christian, a Buddhist or anything else for that matter.

Commenting on a verse that reads, “When, out of envy, others mistreat me with abuse, insults or the like, I shall accept defeat and offer the victory to others” the Lama observed that when we are criticized or unfairly blamed for something, we usually defend ourselves, coming up with lots of explanations of why something isn’t our fault, why we have been mistreated, etc. There is an alternative.

But now you just say, “Excuse me, I’m sorry.” Instead of…fighting, harming others and so on in order to gain the victory, offer it to others, making them happy. Even [if] the whole country, the whole world is complaining about you, instead of reacting and complaining with anger about the others…you should listen to their complaints as much as possible…You usually make yourself miserable by sitting there thinking, “Oh, he’s going to say this or that.” No one is telling you to suffer, you are just causing it yourself. Then when you hear the complaining words, each one is like a heavy rock dropping on your head. So now, instead of letting the situation become the cause of suffering, bring it into the path of enlightenment, [saying] “There is no reason why I should suffer, I’m going to give all these complaints over.

This is not easy advice to follow especially when we are so sure we are right or that we are being treated unfairly. But I think there is much truth to the fact that feeling the need to defend ourselves and make sure everyone knows we are right can cause much suffering to ourselves, let alone suffering to others. How much more peace we would have if could develop the ability to “offer the victory to others.”

Sounds a bit like turning the other cheek, doesn’t it?


Taking Responsibility

When I was a very young child (I’m talking really young, age 3 or so), I had a friend named Arthur, with whom I used to get into all sorts of mischief. Whenever Arthur and I got caught doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, our first response was always, “Dee-Dee did it,” Dee-Dee being my younger sister, Diane, who was about 1 at the time. It was nothing short of preposterous to think she could have done any of what we had attributed to her, but that was our line and we stuck to it, time and time again.

In today’s first Mass reading from Genesis, we hear God accusing Adam and Eve of doing something He had told them not to do. And what is their response? Adam says, Eve did it – she gave me the fruit. Eve says, the serpent did it, he tricked me into eating of the tree.

Whatever else one thinks of the Genesis story, it illustrates a common tendency – finding someone else to blame for what we’ve done. Not taking ownership of whatever our failings and mistakes happen to be. To be sure, there are times when things are not “our fault,” where external circumstances are such we are not responsible for what occurs. Nonetheless, where the first impulse is to blame another, it becomes too easy to avoid taking responsibility for what is really our doing.

I was a debater in high school and my debate coach had many rules, some of which I thought were a bit inane. But one of his rules was one that served us remarkably well. The rule was that we could never blame the judge when we lost a round. We were never permitted to say the judge was biased or made a mistake or any other variation on those themes that might excuse a excuse our losing a ballot.

Now the reality was that there were some really bad judges out there and they sometimes made bad decisions. There were also some judges who were nowhere near objective. (I was once judged in a round by the aunt of my opposing debater.) Nonetheless, his view was that if we started blaming judges for our losses, it would be too easy to get into the habit of doing it, of making excuses. And that habit and those excuses would prevent us from examining seriously what we could have done better.

My coach’s advice was good. And it is something worth taking to heart outside of the context of debate rounds. There are doubtless many things out of our control. But our first line response when we fall short can’t be to find someone else to blame. It has to be to look inward, not to blame or beat up on ourselves. But to simply examine what we might have done differently.