Hypothesis #1: We tend to notice most those faults in others from which we ourselves suffer.
This thought first struck me in High School, when a teacher pointed out that when you point the finger at someone else, you are simultaneously pointing your other three fingers at yourself (try it now if you don’t believe me. Just be careful who you pointing at, though). The message being, of course, that I am likely to be three times as guilty as the person I criticise, but am blissfully unaware of the fact. Oddly enough, I have found this principle to run pretty true, for myself at least. Yes, I am most frustrated by people who cut me off in the middle of a sentence. It really bugs me. Then one day I noticed that I do it all the time. Hmmm. Then I began noticing the principle in action in others. Being a priest, I get to hear people complain about lots of things. Such as, “I can’t believe how my wife goes around complaining about me to everyone!” Or this beauty: “I’m not wasting my time with Bill anymore and I’m not going to lower myself to his level. He’s impatient, and he’s a snob”. Yep. Even the best of us do it. Which brings me to another lesson I’ve learned:
Hypothesis #2: No one is infallible (with apologies to Roman Catholic readers )
I used to think otherwise. I clearly recall a sort of yearning, an innocent childhood fantasy that one day I would meet someone who was perfect. I don’t mean Miss Right, I mean someone on whom I could model my own personality, an ideal character, one who knew the right thing to say and do in every situation and always acted with sagacity and grace. Needless to say, potential candidates sooner or later disqualified themselves by revealing the selfish / cruel / stupid side of their nature. I still recall the deep and coldly bitter pain of these disappointments. Eventually of course I realised, as we all do, that no one is in fact perfect.
Then there was the period where I was going to be the first one to attain perfection. After all, I had the blueprint for perfection in my head, right? I knew how a perfect person should act. How hard could it really be? Those guys just didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t know enough. Well, I’m still trying, but I have to tell you that the older I get, the further I feel from perfection. And the more I fail, the more regard I feel for those fallen heroes of my youth who did, after all, quite a lot better than I have ended up doing, personality-wise. Maybe I was wrong to criticise them in my disappointment?
Hypothesis #3: People who are less critical of others tend to be a bit happier in life than people who are very critical of others.
Then again I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t wasting my time searching for the perfect person. Better to just do my best with what I’ve got and enjoy life. Again, experience would seem to bear this out. If you can keep your smile when all around you are angry, then you’re probably not critical. There are people who prove the adage “ignorance is bliss” daily by going about their affairs peacefully, apparently blind to the faults of others. It’s not that they can’t see those faults, mind you. More that they choose not to let them bother them.
Sometimes I have suffered from the delusion that as soon as I point out to this other person their fault, they will immediately raise a finger in the air and declare, “Why that’s it! That’s the very thing that has been making my life miserable all these years. How could I have missed it? And thank you, O thank you so much for pointing it out to me! I am eternally in your debt!” Needless to say, this has never happened to me in real life. So why waste my time, my breath and my blood pressure?
Of course, this principle has its limits. A bit of healthy criticism might well be well placed for a thug who’s mugging a little old lady as you walk by. Perhaps, one may even be justified in giving one’s criticisms a somewhat physical expression by way of intervening. But by and large, most people’s failings really have very little effect on me or on anyone else. If anything, it is the failings-owner him/herself that suffers most from their own failings, which is no business of mine. So why bother? Why get myself tied up in knots over something I can’t change anyway?
Hypothesis #4: Those who are most critical of others tend to be those who are least accepting of criticism, and contrariwise.
I think of this as a sort of litmus test for how critical a person is. Tell a person they are too critical of others, sit back, and watch their reaction. If they start criticising you for criticising them, that sort of proves your case. If they sit back and carefully consider if you are right, you can probably jump in and apologise for saying something about them that is so obviously not the case. It’s not foolproof, but it illustrates this hypothesis. Being overly critical is a kind of self-perpetuating condition. The one who suffers from it maintains their mindset by excessively criticising anyone who criticises their excessive criticism.
Or am I being too critical?