Like a Dead Man

machine-Anne Lamott

One day last fall I was speaking to my priest about self-centeredness and pride. In the course of our conversation, he relayed to me this story: It seems a man came to a priest one day and asked him how he should deal with people who praise him as well as with those who criticize him. The priest looked at him and told him to go to see a man who lay dead in a room, waiting to be buried. “Go and ask him what you just asked me and see what he says,” said the priest.

The man was puzzled but this was his spiritual father, so he did what he asked. When he came back to the priest, the Father asked him what had happened. “Well, nothing,” said the man “he was dead.”

“Then that is how you are to react to both of those  things.” said the priest. “Like a dead man.” 

I love this story because I struggle with both of those things. How do I act when people criticize and how do I act when people praise. I am incredibly sensitive to words and opinion. Far too sensitive. It is one of the things that I have had to learn as a nurse – when a doctor, another colleague, or a patient yelled at me, angry with what I was or wasn’t doing, I wanted to fall apart. I wanted to hide myself away and be able to cry until there was nothing left of me. But that wasn’t going to work as a nurse. I had to face it and act like nothing happened.

So why am I blogging about this? Because this past week Between Worlds came out on Kindle. Not only did it come out, but for a limited time it is free. I am delighted and overwhelmed by the response. It has been shared over and over – and I am glad! I want it to be available to people overseas who can’t buy it from Amazon. But there is another thing happening here. I’m also aware that the more people read it, the more vulnerable I become to criticism. Everyone will not like it. Everyone will not think it was worth publishing. There will be those who verbalize this in any way possible.

Because that’s who we are as humans. We find our own opinions valuable and feel they will benefit others. 

And so I go back to the story of the man who asked a dead man how to respond to both praise and criticism — and I find that is what I want to do. Perhaps not totally dead – but comatose, with a mere nod and squeezing of the hand that I hear the words, but they will not affect the core of who I am. Because I know this – I don’t want either criticism or pride to prevent me from doing what I have grown to love. 

Anne Lamott, a well-loved author, wrote a book on writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeMy friend Robynn gave me a copy this summer and I have loved reading it, underlining and nodding through the entire book. Because it’s not just about writing, it’s about the human condition and our insecurity, our anxiety, our fear of failure. In her case these things manifest themselves in the response to her writing, in other people these things may raise their strong, ugly heads over other things.

As I think about reacting as a dead man to praise and criticism, I also realize that there are those, like Lamott, who have walked this road a lot longer and open themselves up to far more criticism than I ever will. And so I close with some of the quotes that are helping me as I navigate this world of writing.

“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”

“What if you wake up some day, and you’re 65… and you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life?”

and finally:

Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.

How about you? Do you find yourself vulnerable to praise and criticism? If so how have you handled it? 

[All quotes from Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life]

14 thoughts on “Like a Dead Man

  1. “If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. ” Just one on the many qualities I love about you, Marilyn – your ability to make a story come alive. Although many of us will never experience what you have through the years, your stories get to the heart of the matter and underlying emotion and truth that is universal to us all. Congrats on your book coming to kindle! PLEASE keep writing – we love it!!!

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  2. I loved Bird by Bird! I am also sensitive both to positive feedback, and negative feedback. And, I always obsess in retrospect over how I respond to said feedback, whether I responded “correctly” or not — adding insult to injury. I am learning, SLOWLY and bumblingly, to focus on what God wants me to do, and not other’s opinions, or how to manage other’s opinions.

    But — I agree with finding that real thing, that if it’s real, it will probably be universal. That’s something that’s surprised me, actually. If I get down to the nitty gritty of fear (both fearing loss of health & safety and fearing people’s opinions of me), of finding God always (surprisingly) near (or swinging to doubt His existence), of struggling to believe God can love me, of my reluctance to deal with my emotions as I experience them, or any number of things I’ve walked through these past several years (and continue to walk through), when I start sharing them with other people, invariably I get “ME TOO.” That is the essence of writing, and living, naked that I think we are all called to do. ( http://www.billycoffey.com/2010/01/writing-naked/ )

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    1. I wonder if that is why when writing we need to take breaks — because the vulnerability, self-revelation is pretty exhausting. And then responding or not responding to others is also exhausting….speaking from personal feelings right now. I feel like I can’t write anymore so definitely need to take a break from public stuff.

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    1. So great to hear from you! I basically grew up in Murree! I went there from 6 to 18, graduated and then went back as a houseparent in 87 for a year then moved to Islamabad. I would love to hear more of your story!

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  3. I just want to say that Between Worlds is your unique story….but at the same time shared by so many others. You are a wonderful writer! God will use your book as encouragement in many lives in many ways that you may never hear about. Thanks for writing it.

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  4. Oh! Oh! Oh! I love this…..! And I love that you are reading and enjoying Anne Lamott’s book! I love her! I’m going to post something on facebook for you to look at…it’s her response to this exact topic and in regard to that precise book.
    “You write from the heart. Heart writing connects with readers.” —I’m quoting myself in an email I recently wrote you! Yes. I just did that! love you Marilyn.

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