Capecchi: How to accept criticism is a spiritual exercise

More than 19 million people tuned in to watch the final episode of “Game of Thrones” May 19, making it the most-viewed show to air on HBO. 

Yet many were dissatisfied with what they saw, hurling gripe after grouse online. The finale didn’t fit the ethos of the show, fans insisted. It was overly sentimental. It tarnished the show’s legacy. More than 1 million people signed an online petition to remake the show’s final season. 

Several of the actors took umbrage, including Sophie Turner, who called the criticism “disrespectful” and defended the show’s writers and filmmakers.

Whether the many critiques are fair remains subject to debate, but one fact gives me pause: The petition was drafted before the show’s finale aired, meaning a million people lobbied for a remade season before seeing how it would resolve.

We live in an unfortunate era for online criticism. Critics fling insults they would never dare utter face to face. Defendants – typically privileged public figures – bristle with self-righteousness, dubbing their critics “haters,” earning praise for “clapping back” in their own defense.  

I wonder if we’re growing too defensive. When we clap back so fiercely, do we take the time to consider the criticism? Are we cooling down enough to find the teaching moment in the hot exchange? Or are we digging our heels in and sticking our fingers in our ears?

A media executive once offered a handy guide on when to take criticism to heart. Ask yourself two questions about your critic, she said: Can you trust that this person is acting in good faith and not on some ulterior motive? Does this person have some knowledge of this particular situation that I do not? 

If the answers are yes, then heed their words. If the answers are no, make like Taylor Swift and shake it off. 

Lately I’ve been struggling to determine when to be gentle with myself and when to push myself to a higher standard. In my sleep-deprived days with an infant, it’s easy to justify the former. But there are moments I look at my choices and I know I can do better. More green smoothies, earlier bedtimes. Less binging TV, fewer donuts. I know it’s all connected: sleep, sugar, the limits of my patience, the frequency of my prayer. 

I used to cling to St. Francis de Sales’ quote: “Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself.” It is so tender, so loving. 

But I’d been missing his subsequent statement, meant to be taken as a whole, to moderate the first part: “Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them. Every day begin the task anew.” 

This is a high bar: Address a shortcoming “instantly.” 

St. Francis’ charge is twofold, pointing us to a middle ground: to both be patient with yourself and to consider your imperfections. 

Catholic spirituality equips us with the tools for an examination of conscience and asks us to do so bravely, honestly, daily. This may be harder to do than ever before, in this time when social media makes our personal lives feel public, and we sink in the quicksand of fearing others’ judgment while too readily casting judgments of our own. 

It may be harder to do than ever before, but also more important. We must learn to cast aside unfounded criticism while accepting difficult feedback from trusted sources: a sibling or spouse, a spiritual director, a confessor. And then, with courage and humility, we can “set about remedying” and find a path toward progress. Again and again, sunrise, sunset – we can begin anew.  

Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.

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