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August 11, 2010

Why We Need Rude Comments

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)

When Elephant’s new rude comments policy was first announced, I “Liked” it.  Now, I’m not so sure, for the following reasons:

1)    Because “We” Have Something to Learn from “Them.”

My very first post here on Elephant elicited some piquant responses.  Having written candidly about the challenges of formal spiritual practice in a home with small children, and the fact that so many books on spiritual practice are written by the unattached, I was unprepared for a response like this:

There is a third side, if you will, of those of us who wanted children, but didn’t have or take the opportunity nor had the financial strength or emotional support, and now we are empty. Stop whining about what you have. Those of us w/o children are bombarded with baby and children ads, questions, etc. constantly. It is painful. I have compassion for those who go through trials and tribulations with their children. It would be nice for the childless to be held with compassion instead of being ridiculed for not being “normal”…

Now, I realize that this is only marginally rude; no really ugly language or hurtful sarcasm (“Stop whining” seems merely snarky.) But it is very instructive, because it had never occurred to me that anyone would be hurt in that way by what I had written. I am now more aware of my unawareness, and more prepared for peoples’ pain to wrap a protective layer of anger around itself.

Of course, it’s harder to ferret out an applicable lesson from the overwhelmingly hostile comments—which is where Atisha comes in.

Before the Indian monk Atisha introduced Buddhism into Tibet, he heard that the Tibetans were serene, friendly, non-aggravating people. Fearing lest living among such people would retard his spiritual progress, Atisha brought with him a surly, abrasive Bengali teaboy to help him continually practice patience and forbearance.

The joke, of course, is that once he actually landed in Tibet, he discovered that he needn’t have brought his teaboy with him, as there are frustrating people everywhere. Sometimes they teach us codifiable lessons, and sometimes they just make us aware of how limited our patience really is.

2)    Because “They” Have Something to Learn from “Us”

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  (James 3:1)

Whether or not we have ever thought of ourselves that way, we who put our written thoughts into public forums are teachers. To people who do not have the temerity to presume that other people will find it worthwhile to read what they written, those of us who do appear to have set ourselves up as authorities. And even knowing the awful truth about ourselves, we can still make good use of that position—and we will have plenty of opportunities, because teachers we disagree with are always favorite targets.

In my first post, I quoted an Amazon reviewer who described most writers on spiritual topics as “childless hermits.”  This characterization offended some people.

… People value things according to the time they give them. People who wish they were meditating but are doing something else don’t value meditation – they value something else.

If you were going in for surgery, would you rather take the childless doctor who dedicated his life to the science of surgery, or the one who really couldn’t be bothered to practice anything except in emergencies? The same is true with spiritual guidance.

I notice that you never tire of quoting childless hermits when their quotes suit your cause. Then you attack their method as what I can only read as a jealous rant – precious.

I don’t know what had made this person so angry, but I knew that arguing or defending myself directly would be useless.

Thanks for writing, n______. When I taught college music history, I made an effort to make sure African American, Latin American and women composers were represented–not because my female and minority students were jealous of the “standard repertoire,” but because the actual history of music is far more rich and diverse than music-history-as-taught can make it seem. Just striving for a balance that more accurately represents the wonderful diversity of life–not attacking those who are already well-represented.

My wife is a pediatrician, and her (patients’) parents are greatly comforted by knowing that she is also a mother.

I soon received the following:

Scott, 
I appreciate the effort to be inclusive rather than exclusive. As someone with a music degree, I certainly would have appreciated a teacher like you, one who finds illumination using many lights. I only offer that we shouldn’t extinguish the brightest lights because of the glare from where we’re standing. 
Much peace and love!

3)    Because “Freedom is the cry of the soul.” (Swami Vivekananda)

Paul tells us that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth.” (Romans 8:22.) We’re all trying to give birth to our best selves, and the labor is painful. And Socrates was right: if any of us knew how to do better, we would. So maybe the best thing we can do is to gain enough mastery over nature that we can choose how to respond to those who attack us, rather than allowing them to choose for us. Maybe that’s the real purpose of turning the other cheek—to show that we are free.

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