September 2022

It takes courage for us to be loving critics

“Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers.” These words were spoken by John Gardner, a senior government official in US President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, writes Patty Fawkner.

From our personal and professional lives, we know what Gardner is getting at, feeling at times that we’re wedged between those who believe we can never do anything right and those for whom we can do no wrong.

How easy it is to adopt the role of the unloving critic, to be the one who is quick off the mark to criticise and condemn a person, no matter what they do. Such carping can become habitual in the workplace, family and community life. 

I have seen the unloving critic at work in a family when a spouse never misses an opportunity to run down their partner. I have seen it with co-workers who habitually criticise the ‘boss’.

I find many unloving critics in the Church when ‘the bishops’ are in the firing line, being judged to be incapable of doing anything worthwhile, and having their motives misconstrued. I have observed unloving critics first hand in clergy who regard ‘the reformers’ with mistrust and suspicion.

Unfortunately, our adversarial Westminster system of government promotes the stance of the unloving critic. While we are grateful to have a parliamentary democracy where the parliament and opposition keep the government of the day accountable, the required scrutiny can be conducted in a most brutal fashion. Take, for instance, the country’s oldest parliament, that of New South Wales, which continues to live up to its century-old nickname of the Bear Pit. 

Question Time, at both state and federal levels, readily becomes the ugly face of parliament and symptomatic of some toxic elements of our ‘democracy at work’. Heightened emotion and an aggressive combative style are commonplace, along with the asking of ‘gotcha’ questions, and where the avoidance of answering questions becomes an art form.

Feedback from an uncritical lover may be easier to stomach than the rancour of an unloving critic, but it is as equally untrustworthy.

The star-crossed lover, the doting ‘helicopter’ parent, the idealogue, as well as the groomer and the sycophant can be uncritical lovers, either unwittingly or intentionally. My uncritical lover may wish to ingratiate him or herself to get into my good books, may be afraid to tell it to me straight for fear of upsetting me, or flatter me because of their own self-interest. Candour and integrity may be in short supply.

Literature abounds with flatterers and sycophants – think of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello or Uriah Heap in Dickens’ David Copperfield. In popular culture we have Miranda Priestly’s minions in The Devil Wears Prada.

The uncritical lover also makes an appearance in Question Time with those who ask the ‘Dorothy Dixers’, the questions which aren’t genuinely seeking information but are solely designed to glowingly portray the questioner’s political party. Unloving critics and uncritical lovers working together ensure that parliamentary practice can degenerate into posturing for party-political gain, rather than collaborative policy development for the good of our nation. Neither the unloving critic nor the uncritical lover serve us well.    

I am not a flatterer and don’t tend to be an uncritical lover. But I know how easy it is for me to become the unloving critic, finding fault with the one whose perspective I do not share. It takes discipline, humility, maturity and a big heart to find an alternative way of operating.

And there is a third way. Send in the loving critics, those emotionally intelligent people committed to truth-telling and mutual adult-to-adult interaction, those people who take to heart St Paul’s admonition: “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor 16:14).

Like all of us, I need loving critics in my life – those people who are mindful of my strengths and my failings.

Refusing to neither flatter nor condemn, they both encourage me when I’m right and correct me when I’m wrong. The loving critic resists the urge to offer me unsolicited advice, but will offer constructive, honest critique when asked. 

The best way for me to attract loving critics in my life is to be one myself, but I need good role models. It occurs to me that Jesus is the loving critic par excellence. Consider his interactions with Peter – impulsive Peter who stumbles and fumbles, who is weak and cowardly, and who so often doesn’t ‘get’ the heart of Jesus’ message; Peter who is so comprehensively human like us.   

Though his patience must have been sorely tried, Jesus never rejects Peter. He neither sugarcoats nor judges Peter’s failings. Rather, Jesus continues to believe in Peter and thus creates the space into which he can grow, consistently calling him to deeper goodness and to be the best version of himself.

Pity the leader caught between unloving critics and uncritical lovers; blessed the leader who, surrounded by loving critics, has the courage to be the loving critic herself.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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