There is such beauty in those friends who think well of us enough to believe we have the potential and ability to be better than we are. Friends who exhort us to be better, not in a shaming spirit (“you are not good enough as you are”) but in the way that sees what we’re capable of and out of a desire to see us achieve as much as we can — whether that be in the realm of accomplishments, virtues, or relationships.
I am very, very sensitive to criticism, and have tended to shy away from people who are forthcoming with their criticisms. I have a hard time seeing past the comments to the spirit in which they’re given, and to consider seriously the merits of the criticism. I wish I were more objective about assessments of my character; alas, I am not. But I do have some thoughts about how I can better offer loving challenges, and hopefully those will help me receive them better.
I think the best exhortations take into consideration three variables: the person, the delivery, and the time. Not everyone is the right person to offer a criticism or an exhortation. We inhabit different roles with different people, and we need to honor the nature, and limitations, of those roles. I take more seriously and objectively the work criticisms of my supervisor because that is quite literally her job — to assess and advise me in my professional life. I take seriously the character exhortations of my husband — he knows me better than anyone, loves me more than anyone else does, and we have a deep foundation of trust that makes any comments land more softly (though I am not always happy to receive them…). Choosing to deliver an exhortation to betterment should only come after we seriously consider our “rightness” as deliverer, and a serious thought to the possibility that we may not be the right person. I don’t think anyone is the right person in all circumstances to deliver all the exhortations any one person needs or deserves. Our roles with others are never that total.
Delivery also matters. Challenges to be better can be delivered with harshness or with tenderness, and with any balance of the two. As with all communication, audience matters. The best delivery is the one that takes into consideration the person we are speaking to — how they respond, their relationships and relational background, their emotional tapestry, and their surrounding circumstances. Sometimes bold words are needed; at other times, for the same person, a soft approach is necessary. Sometimes an intimate lunch is best; sometimes a letter suffices. If what we truly care about is the other person actually becoming better (rather than simply caring about being seen as right and morally superior — to ourselves, to them, or to our deity), we need to consider the method of delivery out of respect for the complex and rich person of the one we love.
Finally, timing. Timing can be everything. My heart is not always ready to receive challenges and exhortations, even from my husband. Sometimes a matter of hours is all that is needed for me to go from stone to sponge. While we can’t perfectly judge the receptivity of another person, I think it behooves us to consider what else is going on the other person’s life and, if we have decided we are the right person for the exhortation, to find an appropriate time for the exhortation that takes into consideration the other events and responsibilities of her life.
I am so grateful for the loving exhortations (and lighthearted ribbing) my husband has given me over the years to exhort me to be and think better, and I feel that it has all been for my benefit. I am smarter, kinder, humbler, and better because of him. I’d like to be more open to having that “challenge borne of love” in other relationships, and to offer any exhortations I feel responsible to offer more sensitively, thoughtful, and lovingly. Perhaps another blog post for another time.