Saturday, August 03, 2013

Critical Kindness

"So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness." 
I think this is brilliant. It's George's Saunder's advice to graduates at Syracuse.
I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately, I suppose my post about teasing and feeling over-sensitive was about this somewhat.  I love that he calls these “failures in kindness.”  Not only directed at me, but at everyone.  We hurt for others, sometimes as much as ourselves, and sometimes to the point that these are painful memories.

The beautiful girl from Kentucky in my 4th grade class who was asked to read by the teacher and had to say, in front of the class, “I can’t read.”  The teacher was embarrassed, knowing this already but having forgotten, wanting only to include her but instead marking her in front of the class. I can still see her face from when I was 10, the shame I felt on her behalf, and anger that she would be passed from grade to grade without learning anything.

Apropos of things I write about, I notice in criticism how when we talk about movies, shows, art, etc., people can be outright mean. I have recently heard quite a few strident opinions from people trashing work, mean-spirited dismissals from others in the same discipline. It’s hard to listen to. I understand it, certainly. I get angry when something is bad. It’s very challenging to find something good, when something is bad enough to make you angry. I’ve changed, recently, though, appreciating just how hard it is to create work at all.  I’ve always been a bit of a cheerleader, so it’s probably natural for me to move in that direction, but I’ve finding myself trying to find what's positive first. What works. It can be challenging after a lifetime believing that criticizing something is a mark of intelligence, while blindly admiring something is possibly dull, and at worst, stupid. You have to think of something smart to say, after all, and what's wrong is usually much easier to reach for.

I don’t know that I’ve been cruel ever in my assessments, but I’ve been watching what I say and how I say it more and more. I’ve been working on how to honor what has been done, or what is being attempted. The default strategy when something isn't good is to stay engaged by figuring out what doesn’t work. That is its own kind of enjoyment.  In fact, sometimes I learn more that way. I’ve heard a few people recently who are just dissatisfied with whatever it is they are seeing – the John Simons of the world – and I’ve begun to dismiss what they are saying. I find if there isn’t humanity in the criticism, there is not much point in reading or listening to it.  It takes a great deal to produce anything, so honoring that is paramount.  After that, we can take it apart to see how it does or doesn’t work. Sometimes, with criticism, it’s necessary to sift through schadenfreude, bitterness, or simple burnout, even just the critic’s inability to figure out what they don’t like.

The point is, we are all looking for something but we can’t quite put our finger on it.  We don’t know it, but we know it when we see it. When we see it or feel it, it's magic. When we see it we try to explain it. I hope when we do, we do it with kindness. People kill themselves over creating work, sadly sometimes literally. The least we can do is put on a smile and give it our best attention. If criticism is only mean, or just aims to hurt, then it doesn't give the artist/writer/performer anything to work with.  At best, they will discard it for its lack of compassion, at worst it will stymie, freeze, or destroy them. On all sides, we get passionate. I feel like it's best when that passion acknowledges that others have the same desire,

Over the last few years, I’ve had the gift of attending elementary school performances of a dear (family, really), friend’s children.  I never miss a chance to go. The kids are adorable, ridiculous, hysterical, endearing, committed, terrified, elated. When I go to these performances, I am nothing but thrilled for every performer on that stage, whatever level of ability. I leave filled with happiness.  Seriously, if you’re ever sad, go see an elementary school talent show.  It cannot fail to raise your spirits.  I’ve been cultivating that kindness in every show and movie I go to recently.  It’s not easy to put things on. Hopefully the creators have been thinking about us, and trying to entertain us.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Just like in third grade.

If the aim is to make work better, or more what it wants to be, then there must be kindness and compassion beneath what's being said.  Some would argue that's not the function of criticism. Perhaps it's not.  Criticism has many functions: to contextualize, to understand, to argue for, to argue against, to teach, to improve. My aim is at the criticism whose main function is to tear down. I admit I love to read a well-written bad review, but I don't know if I would put that in the pool of criticism.  Criticism, when it works, enlightens me.  As I'm finding in the world that there is no solution in anger, there is no solution in haranguing. One of the main rules in improv is never saying no, as that just stops the scene.  Similarly, if all you have to say is "that actress is fat and ugly and she should never be playing that role," you've served only to damage her ego, and probably make yourself look like an idiot. By all means, have an opinion, but at least acknowledge that someone else has put in some effort, even when, by your standards, it doesn't look like it.

I remember playing Frankenstein in elementary school, covered in green makeup. I sang a song about believing in yourself. Right before going on, I accidentally sat in a one of those shallow gray metal grades school trash cans. For a few moments, I couldn’t get out.  Uncharacteristically, instead of berating myself, I laughed and encouraged others to laugh at it, too.  Then I found my way out, went on stage, and sang my song.

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