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]

Wrapping Up the Week 3.9.13

Boston’s unexpected foot of snow has now been replaced with bright sunshine. It’s remarkable really – for three days we braved treacherous roads, high wind, and blowing snow – and today? The sun is bright and it’s expected to reach the mid forties. It is so much like other areas of life, where stress and worry blow in and take over, covering everything around — you think it will never end. And then it does. And you shake your head with a bit of a smile as the tension leaves your back and your face and, holding yourself straighter, you walk forward.

On to the week wrap-up.

On online criticism: Our online behavior when it comes to getting involved in issues we care about is nothing short than a mob mentality. We find those who think like we do and we join forces with loud opinions through 140 characters, with long blog posts, and short Facebook insults. While the article I’ve linked to is specific to one author and a new book that is being released, the advice in the article is excellent. In short he says and I paraphrase: Calm down, Read first, understand the other guy, cling to what is good. The entire article is excellent but my favorite line is this:

“Criticism Is Not Inherently Narrow-minded Oppression”

I would urge all to read and then share this article – it’s full of wisdom and sound advice. So Rob Bell Wrote Another Book – Some Thoughts Before Actually Reading It – Take a look and let us know what you think!

On Poetry and Women: Mirman Baheer is a woman’s literary society in Kabul. It serves as a way for women to come together and recite poetry, often poetry that they have written, as well as talk about literature. The rural areas of Afghanistan are far stricter when it comes to women and poetry, in fact, women risk their lives to call in to Mirman Baheer and recite their poetry so it can be transcribed. The article here is a long one but will take you to the rural areas of Afghanistan where young women are taken out of school and find writing poetry to be their only form of education. You will be introduced  to some brave artist poets who risk their lives for the love of poetry. Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry was published this week in the NY Times. Along with that comes an article on the power of poetry from Christianity Today. The author compares this love and commitment to poetry to our apathy of poetry. “We seem, sadly, to have lost an understanding of poetry’s beauty and power.” she says in Have we forgotten the power of poetry? I would love to hear what you think – do you like poetry? Understand it? Read it? Would you risk your life for poetry?

IMG_5065On International Women’s Day: Yesterday held news from Around the world for International Women’s Day. While I’m glad we have a day set aside, I feel a bit skeptical as I see all this news, and know that a day later much will be forgotten. I do want to highlight two articles – One is an article of hope that takes a look at the difference mothers can make in the nutrition of their children. Mother’s Rewriting the Future will take you to Kenya and give you a glimpse of one woman’s life. The other is from Djibouti Jones where the author Rachel encourages us to think about this every day – not just one day a year. She gives us 5 Ways to Celebrate International Women’s Day. Rachel is also doing a series on Hijab that you don’t want to miss. I’ll be linking to more on that series next week.

Also on International Women’s Day – have you yet read about My Favorite Feminist? Take a look at this remarkable woman!

On my bedside stand: I’ve almost finished Beyond the Beautiful Forevers – a hard, beautiful read. There is no doubt that the author is skilled with words – but I actually want Robynn to read it and do the review – as someone who has lived in India for a long time and been intimately involved in the lives of many, I think she is the one to respond. Of course – this is the first she’s heard of this …..! I’ve also begun a small book by Frederica Matthewes-Green called The Jesus Prayer. This is a simple prayer that was passed on through the ages by the desert fathers “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me”. It was passed on as a way to practice being continually in prayer. Partly devotional, partly historical it is opening my eyes to the power of these words.

How about you? What are you reading? What has caught your eye through the week?