On Reproof

The other day I felt like someone was reproving me.

Can you think of an example of someone criticising your behaviour?

If you’re having trouble thinking of an example of reproof in your own life, take the little example of someone disapprovingly honking at your driving. (This example may only work in places like Oregon where honks mean something.) Or think of being pulled over by the police. I think the implicit criticism in being pulled over (along with the fact that they have guns and power to throw you in jail) contributes some to the emotional intensity of interactions with cops. The interaction begins with an insult.

It’s not fun to be criticized, judged or reproved. There’s just a sting in being told you weren’t good enough. But thinking about the burning sting of judgment, a thought came to me that made me feel happy.

There is the fact that a criticism or a reproof can help one repent and improve. But that’s not the thought that made me feel happy. Still, a criticism, whether it is kindly meant or not, can be helpful. The Bible says “He that refuseth instruction despiseth his own soul: but he that heareth reproof getteth understanding.” (Proverbs 15:32) and “A fool despiseth his father’s instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.” (Proverbs 15:5)

This raises the question, though: what if the reprover is wrong? I suppose you should take into account who is correcting you (does he hate you?), but I think the main thing is to not be so overmastered by pride that you can’t hear or consider any criticism. Your pride and prejudicial favouritism toward yourself will skew your perspective. Is it possible for you to look at the criticism objectively? Sometimes people do criticize you for doing right, and you shouldn’t just be so “humble” that you change course. On the other hand, the fact that criticism can be wrong shouldn’t give you the excuse to disregard every criticism. That would obviously show an overweening prejudice in favour of yourself. Does it even make sense that you would always be right, and others never would?

But why do we all have this prejudice toward ourselves? Why are we willing to justify ourselves rather than others?

It is for the same reason that reproof stings.

Of course, proximity over time makes us fonder of people and things; we burn when anyone or anything that we are familiar with is criticized, and who have we spent more time “with” than ourselves?

But our self-justifying instinct is not merely because of a familiar fondness for ourselves — the kind one might have for an object, a place, or an institution, such as the Chicago Cubs or Chicago itself. It’s not just that out of the billions of people through history you choose to favour yourself and justify and defend your actions because you are most familiar with yourself and your circumstances. It is because you are yourself. You willed and performed the deed(s) in question.

When someone criticizes your actions the sting is mostly not in a sense of affront for who you are in terms of your raw material — who you are as an object; the sting is in the criticism of what you have done with the lot you’ve been given. The sting is not “you failed in your basic composition, by being born a human” but rather “you took your raw material as a human and with your own individual agency messed up.” Such a criticism is the most deeply personal. You You YOU messed up.

And that’s where the happy thought comes in, You are a You.

That core being who messed up. A being with agency who can be blamed. One who can will, and choose, and mess up. You exist. And out of all the figments and fragments that exist, you got to be an “I”; you got to be a human. An indivisible individual with agency. A little lower than the angels.

Pinch me. It sounds too good.

Take a deep, sweet, thankful breath.