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I grew up with a very critical father; and then, guess what, I became a critic myself. Not too surprising, right?
My dad had a harsh life. His father, an immigrant from Scandinavia, was sold into indentured servitude as a child, because his family couldn’t feed all their children. He worked as a slave to a farmer for five years, from the age of 10 until he was 15, when he escaped.
That experience scarred my grandfather for life, as you might imagine. He became a carpenter, had a family and lived a relatively normal life in America, but I can’t remember him ever being a happy person. He believed in punishment, and he severely punished my father, the oldest son in the family, for every infraction.
We all tend to parent like we were parented, I suppose, so my father took the same approach with me. When I was born, my father had spent his youth and early adulthood as a U.S. Marine, fighting in World War II. His upbringing from my stern, strict grandfather and the trauma he suffered during the war convinced him that he had to raise his own son the same way he was raised—with criticism, military discipline and physical abuse.
I didn’t take well to that approach, and ran away from home at 14. But as a young child, I suffered. I always felt, after the daily barrage of criticism and punishment over why I didn’t measure up to my father’s expectations, that I would never be what he wanted me to be. Finally, I rebelled, deciding that I would be who I wanted to be. As an adult I tried to take a spiritual path, and raise my own sons in a more peaceful, understanding way.
But, as the old Biblical adage goes, the son inherits the sins of the father, and I became a journalist and a literary critic. My job? Read books, find faults and pass judgment on them, in much the same way that my father and his father passed judgment. Ironic, right? In a way, I had become what I despised—a person who found fault with others and their works. Yes, I do think critics can serve a useful public service by alerting the culture to great art, film and literature—but they can also crush careers, destroy reputations and decimate the tender feelings of artists who are trying their best.
As a Baha'i, I really struggled with the job. I realized I didn’t feel very good about myself when I wrote disparagingly about the literary efforts of others. When I “panned” a book—gave it a negative review—it reminded me of all the criticism I had withstood as a child. I thought about the author of the book reading my review, and how it had the potential to hurt that writer. All of this affected my spirit, and I began to think about finding another line of work.
One day, as I was interviewing a terrific American author named James Lee Burke, I asked him a pretty mundane question: “Who are your influences, your favorite authors?” He said “I respect and admire anyone who has the patience and fortitude to write down their true thoughts and feelings.” That one sentence struck me with the force of a hurricane. It reminded me of that famous droll quip, variously attributed to Ernest Hemingway, Red Smith and Thomas Wolfe, when someone asked if writing was hard: “There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
I resolved, then and there, never to write a negative review again. From that day on, if I read a book I didn’t appreciate or couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend, I declined to review it. I no longer wanted to find fault, disparaging the work, the intent or the motivations and perceptions of other writers. I took a new position, heavily influenced by the Baha’i teachings, by deciding to only write positive criticism—to look at the good qualities of the books I read, focusing on the merits and the beauty of the work.
Essentially, I took my advice from Abdu’l-Baha, in a letter he wrote to an American physician named Dr. M. G. Skinner in 1913:
I hope that the believers of God will shun completely backbiting, each one praising the other cordially and believe that backbiting is the cause of Divine Wrath, to such an extent that if a person backbites to the extent of one word, he may become dishonored among all the people, because the most hateful characteristic of man is fault-finding. One must expose the praiseworthy qualities of the souls and not their evil attributes. The friends must overlook their shortcomings and faults and speak only of their virtues and not their defects.
It is related that His Holiness Christ—May my life be a sacrifice to Him!—one day, accompanied by His apostles, passed by the corpse of a dead animal. One of them said: “How putrid has this animal become!” The other exclaimed: “How it is deformed!” A third cried out: “What a stench! How cadaverous looking!” But His Holiness Christ said: “Look at its teeth! How white they are!” Consider, that He did not look at all at the defects of that animal; nay, rather, He searched well until He found the beautiful white teeth. He observed only the whiteness of the teeth and overlooked entirely the deformity of the body, the dissolution of its organs and the bad odour.
This is the attribute of the children of the Kingdom. This is the conduct and the manner of the real Baha’is. I hope that all the believers will attain to this lofty station. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 192.
Needless to say, my editors didn’t always agree. Any critic who only writes positive reviews doesn’t often develop a discerning reputation in our current culture, which delights in rampant and even vicious criticism. In fact, the most famous, celebrated and best-compensated literary critics today are often the savage attackers, the ones who write extremely negative and even cruel reviews.
Perhaps that comes from the frequently malign influence of the web, which seems to give everyone license to belittle others, demean their motives and disparage their work.
I decided that I didn’t want to be that person—that it would take too great a toll on my spirit. Instead, I decided to try to be this person:
One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise. When this is done, one can be a friend to the whole human race. If, however, we look at people from the standpoint of their faults, then being a friend to them is a formidable task. - Abdu'l-Baha, Selections of the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 169.