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The Character of LoveThe Character of Love

The Character of Love

Critiquing Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s self-help book Option B, Cardus grants associate Timothy deVries suggests the best response to personal criticism is to conduct ourselves with words and acts that love and honour God.

Timothy deVries
3 minute read

Option B, by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and psychologist Adam Grant, is a book for people who are or have faced adversity and are looking to build resilience. It’s not a Christian book, although one friend informed me with a smile that the book quoted the poem, Footprints in the Sand.

The book does contain a lot of helpful and practical tips for regaining joy after experiencing deep sorrow and loss. In the midst of a chapter entitled, Self Compassion and Self Confidence, Sandberg distinguishes between criticism that is directed toward character versus criticism that is directed towards a person’s actions. She notes that these are not two different types of criticism as much as they are two different ways of understanding the nature, intent, purpose and effects of criticism: what it accomplishes, and the reason criticism is so often understood as a vector or arrow with a purely destructive nature.

Those engaged in the politics of the right and the left have commonly understood criticism in relation to identity. But, according to Sandberg, this betrays a significant misunderstanding. Criticism which is directed towards a person’s character creates shame. Shame is something that cannot be removed or alleviated without separating the criticism from the character to which it is directed. In other words, this type of criticism creates divisions, divisions which hurt the criticized character and lead to resentment, betrayal and withdrawal. These are human, but sinful responses. People who live with shame often live years and entire lifetimes without relieving themselves of its pervasive and debilitating effects.

This outcome leads to the kind of identity politics that are all too common in our public square today. Better, says Sandberg, to understand criticism in relation to guilt, and as a spur for action. Action, and behaviour, is finite, changeable, forgivable, and subject to a person’s control. In other words, criticism understood in relation to action or behaviour, can to lead to better ways of living – if the person so criticized is able to frame the criticism in this way. The problem is, we seldom can, because we tend to understand criticism, whether of ourselves, our children, something we’ve done, or something we’ve made, as a reflection on our own character. And this, says Sandberg, prevents us from making real improvements to the way we act.

I’d like to provide another perspective on criticism, one which has its origins in my years as a student of theory and criticism. Critical theory has long had an efficacious relationship with the dialectical method, in which criticism is theorized and theory is criticized. This provides an interesting and fruitful, if not enigmatic, avenue that is rich in possibilities.

For example, if criticism is not understood in relation to character or identity, but to an action or behaviour, then what sort of actions and behaviours are we talking about? How, indeed, as adults, with ingrained habits and ways of doing things, are we to act and live, if the way we have lived and acted has been subject to criticism? We are talking here of something substantial and profound, since to change actions and behaviours a whole host of other changes are not only required, but expected as a consequence of that new way of living. And as much as this could become part of a general theory, we are in fact talking about hearts and minds, about becoming the kind of person who turns all of the criticism which has been received, into redundant nonsense.

To become worthy of criticism, is to overcome it by demonstrating that it was misplaced – and unnecessary – for the person I have become.

Character education is, of itself, a fruitless endeavour if it is not accompanied by the kind of thinking which sees in human nature, not something which can be perfected, but sanctified by living in ways which honour God and our neighbour. This is practical, creative work. And to what end? The Apostle Paul says we must be ready to answer anyone – those who praise and affirm us as well as our detractors. And what does this mean? It means that we are to live in a way that forestalls criticism by recognizing the limits of our own character, and the faith with which we act.

To be present, in thought and speech, is to recognize that our character and our actions, though worthy of criticism, are effectively an answer to that criticism, an answer that gains confidence by knowing that our character and actions are motivated by love.

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