No Magic Solution To Criticism: In Conversation with Sr. Rita Woehlcke
As you know, my dear friend Sr. Rita is undergoing chemo for cancer, a disease she calls her “Wisdom Companion.” She has written, and continues to write, about the wisdom she is receiving as she is on this journey. You can read her essays on this blog. Just look in the search engine.
The other thing she has offered us all is that she will answer our spiritual questions. If you have a question, please read this post.
I should also mention that the chemo is leaving her utterly exhausted. Your prayers and good wishes are most welcome.
And now, let’s move to our next question, this one from Darcy H.:
“I find a lot of comfort in your posts, so first, thank you. Love and prayers, too.
I’m a recovering Evangelical, still a believer, having finally left church after 2016 (after Trump’s election). I’m also an author, with a novel set against a backdrop of both my Mennonite and Seventh-day Adventist upbringings. Also the pandemic. My intuition and experience tell me the book’s release is going to swat a hornets’ nest of religious furor (from SDAs, mostly, Mennonites are used to literary mirrors). Do you have any thoughts on how to keep from absorbing the stings coming my way? Some may be from family.”
Sr. Rita’s response:
One of the markers St Ignatius uses for the spiritual journey is the question, “How free am I?” He is speaking of the kind of freedom that enables us to choose the greatest good, to live from our deepest integrity (not to be confused with the callow, “I Gotta be Me.”) Invariably our best choices evoke a strong response – sometimes support, other times unadulterated vitriol.
In making the choices, my job is to keep my side of the street clean. Part of that is having the right intention, an inner fidelity that is not fueled by being against anyone. This demands a writer do her own inner work or risk becoming one more contributor to projecting our shadow on others. There is a place for naming, depicting the messy parts of the human condition. — a task that falls to many a writer. I have always been drawn to William Faulkner’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1950. He speaks about the call to engage “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
The writer must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands. That is the writer’s business.
Embedded in this question is the price of living with integrity.
I am powerless over how my choices land in others’ lives. They may comfort some; disturb others. Their reactions are about them, not me, if indeed I have acted from a place of authentic (though not necessarily perfect) integrity. Expect blowback.
Consider this poem by Mary Oliver, called JOURNEY:
|One day you finally knew|
|what you had to do, and began,|
|though the voices around you|
|their bad advice —|
|though the whole house|
|began to tremble|
|and you felt the old tug|
|at your ankles.|
|“Mend my life!”|
|each voice cried.|
|But you didn’t stop.|
|You knew what you had to do,|
|though the wind pried|
|with its stiff fingers|
|at the very foundations,|
|though their melancholy|
|It was already late|
|enough, and a wild night,|
|and the road full of fallen|
|branches and stones.|
|But little by little,|
|as you left their voice behind,|
|the stars began to burn|
|through the sheets of clouds,|
|and there was a new voice|
|which you slowly|
|recognized as your own,|
|that kept you company|
|as you strode deeper and deeper|
|into the world,|
|determined to do|
|the only thing you could do —|
|determined to save|
|the only life that you could save.|
Two words I have found tremendously helpful when dealing with these reactions are “Of course.” Of course, they will react negatively, of course they will use any and every tactic to discredit or even demonize my choice. Of course, it will hurt. Personal integrity does not anesthetize the part of me that longs for esteem and affection. This kind of hurt, however, can lead us to greater freedom. Perhaps we need to do grief work focused on those whose love and affirmation we crave but who are not able, and may never be able, to validate us.
There are many psychological techniques that can supply practical coping skills. What I am describing is the invitation to even deeper freedom that can come from acknowledging hurt and attending to deeper healing.
The effect my choices have on those I know and those I may never know is God’s business. Your choices are an occasion of grace for both you and them — for some that may be a painful encounter, for others it may be solace. What they do with the experience is theirs. What you or I do with what comes back to us because of our choices is ours – always in grace.
My new mantra: “Of course!” ❤️ I think this is going to prove to be very valuable to me! Thank you, Sr. Rita
Thanks for your comment, Madelyn. Sr. Rita will be happy to hear you found the essay useful. (As did I!)
Utterly beautiful, and helpful. Thank you, sister Rita, and may light and love soothe and heal the parts of you that need healing today.
Thanks so much for your commnt, Anne.
Thank you Sr Rita, and thank you Lauren for posting this. It is most helpful and beautifully written.
You’re most welcome, Susan. Glad to hear it’s helpful.
Wow. Profoundly true and I know it by the ringing in my heart!
What preparation for me for an encounter I will have this week: what is my intention “going in” and NOT “what are they “up to”? Always grateful!!!
Thanks for the comment, Terri. Sr. Rita’s really something
Of course! I have wondered why the knee jerk criticism is so paralyzing, why it seems to knock me off my feet each time. And why do I never see it coming especially when it happens so often? This is a special kind of childlike blindness that leaves me vulnerable and kind of helpless and afraid of life. Not quite the same as a childlike beginner’s mind. I am talking about the daily slings and arrows, not the huge ones where my truth might be out there and avoidance might not be enough.
But after reading this, I can make my expectations more realistic. Of course! And why not? This is what happens when you put yourself out there. And I do not mean to be cynical but I do need to be less dependent on my need for affirmation. And the real work and deep healing Sister Rita is talking about needs to happen. It takes courage and grace to go there….
Thanks for your comment, Judy. There’s much I identify with in it.
No matter who we are or what we do with our lives, it seems we must eventually face this truth: not everyone is going to understand our intentions, and people will respond to our work in ways that are, at least in part, because of who they are and not necessarily because of the work itself.
Years ago, a friend told me life was pretty simple and words mean just what they mean, no more no less.
“The word truck is just about a truck, nothing more,” he said. ”
Well,” I replied, “the word ‘truck’ will mean one thing and have an entirely different set of connotations to the person who drives a truck than to the person who was hit by one.”
I can’t control someone’s response to the word, but I can make sure if I use it, I do so because I believe it is the best word for the job and that I’m working for the good of all.
I try to live with that old saying, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Same with my writing. If I have done the work of discernment, have faced my own Shadows, and can honestly say that I am not trying to harm anyone, but am attempting to do good, then I can stop allowing other people’s responses to wound me so. Or at least I can try. Sometimes, depending especially on who’s criticizing us, it will sting, but knowing my Soul understands my intention provides me comfort and a bit of armor.
On the other hand, I can’t deny that from time to time, I find myself rearing up in anger. When that happens, my experience has been it’s because someone hit a nerve, and maybe I need to look a little more closely at whatever it is. If I’m accused of being something I absolutely know I am not, I can shake it off pretty easily. On the other hand, if there’s a kernel of truth in the accusation, it makes me pretty damn uncomfortable.
It does take courage and grace. You’re quite right.
Thanks you St Rita, Judy, and Lauren for the post and comments. So many valuable insights about life, decision-making, and interacting with others. I’ve come across the situation of having a “kernal of truth in an accusation” and as said above, it’s made me reflect on my own behavior and intentions, and helped me be a better person. Warmly, Tessa B.
Thanks very much, Tessa. Much appreciated.