Earlier this year, I attended a gathering of women with perhaps the best “get to know you” activity ever. Our hostess asked everyone to name something happy in their life right now and something really difficult. As we went around the circle, the answers became progressively more honest and personal. We cheered for successes with children, careers, education and wiped away tears as women described parenting issues, marriage problems, fears for the future…. Women wrapped arms around each other in sympathy for weight gain and/or a rebellious child, because it’s all hard, there’s no hierarchy of “problems worth mentioning” vs. “issues which must be suffered in silence.”
As you might imagine, those introductions set the tone for an event where women who’d scarcely known each other the day before could connect and learn from each other in powerful ways. And, as I’m sure you intuited, we bonded through our deficiencies more than through our successes.There’s something powerful and sacred in acknowledging our need for help and receiving acceptance without judgment or blame.
As I’m sure you also guessed, not a single person said, “Oh, I don’t have any problems.”
Plato, he knew his stuff. I love that quote so much I painted on our laundry room wall twelve years ago. I see it every day. And I still forget. We all forget.
Recently I was caught in another social situation precisely the opposite of the one above. For well over an hour I was stuck with a woman who took no time to listen, but every opportunity to berate, belittle and offer unsolicited advice.
Feeling cornered and frankly shocked by her verbal harassment I considered asking, “Why are you treating me like this?” but decided I didn’t want to engage in a battle. Once she left, I turned to our mutual friend and asked, “What just happened?”
“She does this sometimes,” my friend explained, “if she thinks your life is going a bit too smoothly, she’ll bring you down.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in constructive criticism and more than once a bit of random advice set me straight. I’m a huge believer in taking the opportunity to learn even from unpleasant people, but no one needs a sixty minute verbal harassment. Especially from someone who hasn’t taken the time to get to know us.
Just days after my own experience, I talked to a friend who was receiving the same sort of censure from a fellow employee and read an email from a cute sister missionary who was cringing from abuse from her companion. Our friend Roger calls these critics ‘crab traps’– people who just want to pull others down with their crabbiness.
Parents often fall into this habit with their kids, wives with husbands and vice versa. It’s good for all of us to sit back and ponder the absolute futility of excessive criticism.
Honestly, I’m sure I’ve been a crab trap myself at times. And the woman who berated me is a lovely person– kind and generous and always looking out for others (just not me that day). I think we just forget everyone has problems, everyone has heartache. We don’t share those hurts with everyone because A. no one wants to be a downer and B. sharks attack when they smell blood in the water. I’m an extremely open person and don’t mind sharing my own foibles, but we all have struggles we can’t share. We can all whine about the agonies of potty training, but when kids (and spouses and siblings and such) get a bit older we owe them privacy.
In contrast to the crab traps, I think of my friend Sue. She’s the kind of person you look for across the room because she’ll wrap her arms around you, tell you you’re wonderful, cheer with your successes and validate every concern. Actually, I have a lot of friends like Sue– people who make you stand a bit taller and try a little harder to be the person they already think you are.
I’m worn out these days. I’ve just gone too fast for too long and I’m not very good at relaxing (because there’s always work to do). When an introvert like me gets burned out, it’s hard to exude love and compassion for others. Still, I want to be like Sue, or rather like Jesus. I want to make you stand a little straighter and feel a little happier. And if I start acting like a crab trap, let me know, that’s the kind of criticism I need to hear.