Maneuvering through this complex, fearsome, fascinating society requires self-survival techniques that we would prefer not to have to employ. A pervasive strategy, one that appears to be coded directly into human behavior, is to call attention to the shortcomings of others so as to distract from our own failings and other insecurities. We are a species of critics, quick to judge others and loathe to turn that attention upon ourselves. Criticism should not be our defining attribute.
As we grow increasingly more transparent and connected, our predilection for criticism becomes more stark and more destructive. At every turn, we are bombarded by negativity, by complaints and heckles and abuse. Even if it is not focused on us, we wade in its midst daily. The oppressive environment that we have created is authoritarian in its impact. We live in fear that we will be singled out and lambasted for minor transgressions or, more disconcertingly, for just being ourselves. The example set by our national discourse has trickled down to the most local levels.
Tolerant as we are of such a milieu, it is unsurprising that we face a terrifying epidemic of suicide. Whether a subject of direct bullying or an indirect victim of the larger darkness, people are killing themselves, preferring that end to living in this cruel civilization. Disproportionately and heartbreakingly, this affliction strikes our adolescents, those in the midst of that most fragile epoch of self-discovery and self-hatred. While I do not claim any psychological expertise on this complicated subject, there is enough anecdotal evidence of suffering to raise alarm. We can no longer sit idly while promising lives are cut short.
It is challenging to change one individual mood, let alone the entire international consciousness. But, it is imperative that we recalibrate our view of how much criticism is actually constructive. Because critiques are largely borne as a defense mechanism, the initial step is to recognize the overblown nature of the criticisms levied in our direction. This is not to say that they are wholly inaccurate: we are flawed people. Yet each of us is better than we believe ourselves to be. With the exception of the truly sociopathic, even those that appear to be conceited are deeply insecure.
Coincident with our personal growth, we need to spread the love to those around us. While there is such a thing as too many compliments, that bar is higher than it is currently set. I do not urge the false flattery of the Southern country club. Backhanded praise is worse than saying nothing. Conversely, there is no downside to giving earnest kudos to someone. It could be as innocuous as saying how much you like their shoes or, ideally, something specific and personal and positive. Initially, unaccustomed to such kindness, the recipient’s outward reaction may be neutral or even suspicious. Internally, they are glowing.
Positivity is just as contagious as negativity. A small trickle can become a torrent with the rapidity of a flash flood. Waves of good feelings will buoy our spirits and inspire us to build the harmonious world which we so sorely crave. Our former impulse to issue disparaging criticisms will give way to the inclination to help our fellow humans with conscientious suggestions for improvement. Far from a semantic distinction, it embodies a choice between outlooks: destructive or constructive. There is only one right answer.