28 July 2008

Criticizing the Critics

One of my college professors just caught up with me and learned that much of my year had been spent schlepping around lead buckets of misery stew around like a morose milk maid. He was sorry to hear I had been feeling so bad and wondered if my problems were rooted in too much worry and stress.

Too much worry and stress? I guess that could be part of it, I said in response. Certainly worry, stress, guilt, anger, fear, over-analysis, and this nasty little repression habit are some ingredients that accompany this black mood. It could also be cyclic; every four years I'm fraught with this most inky and bilious of humors.

What I did not say but certainly thought about considerably after our email exchange was the fact that I had probably been putting up with it for longer than I was willing to admit. Depression is a disease that does not allow for pinpoint accuracy in terms of cause and effect. In my many go arounds with depression, there has never been a defining moment of "Well shit. Now I am officially depressed. Ho-fucking-hum." The threshold is gossamer, and one can easily teeter on the brink indefinitely.

I was still pondering my professor's question of the origins of my disease and the subsequent spillage of my cart full of nuts when I read that Randy Pausch, the professor of The Last Lecture fame, had died. I haven't read the book, but I did flip through it while I was stranded at the Salt Lake City Airport. It appealed to me because of my own fond memories of the Last Lecture series at college in which professors told colorful stories of being born in an elevator, or read several of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales aloud in Middle English.

Even though I left Pausch's book on the shelf that day, it kept crossing my path. Eventually I decided that I would purchase La Ultima Leccion, the book's Spanish translation, when I was feeling flush. This way I could read the book that kept following me around and practicar español. Believe me, my español needs a good deal of practicar.

When I read of Pausch's death, I watched the video of the original lecture, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams as recorded at Carnegie Mellon. Within the first few minutes of the hour plus speech, I got a heavy dose of "your reality makes my reality make more sense," and it was inspired by an anecdote about football of all things. I have zero tolerance when it comes to football.

In his lecture, Pausch told a story of a football practice with his childhood football coach. He's been given a hard time all practice long, and another coach points out the importance of this sort of criticism. He says:
"When you're screwing up and nobody's saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up... When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering to tell you anymore, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are the ones who tell you they still love you and care."
This hit a really raw nerve. I know that very bad place all too well.

When I was temping, I knew I was doing a bad job. The work was menial and I never had enough to do. When I bothered to show initiative, I was castigated. I was unchallenged, under-utilized and bored. I listened for my critics, but I couldn't hear them clearly. This was a very bad place to be.

On a personal level, I was really upset by this workplace situation. I was angry in a way that made me feel as if my blood were thick with little toxic beads of quicksilver. I didn't know how to deal with being this angry. So I made work into a sort of a farce. I misappropriated the privilege of free time. I let the quality of my work slip to embarrassing levels. And to my astonisment, my flagrant abuse of the system is what caused my co-workers to be nice to me. People would show up at my cublicle to hear me gripe about the system. When I listened for a critic, I heard laughter. This was a very bad place to be.

When I finally left my last temp job to take a dramaturgy post, I thought I would be able to heave a huge sigh of relief. Afterall, doing something I enjoy as much as dramaturgy should bring me great pleasure. I would do it in my sleep. I would do it for no pay (even though all dramaturgs should make a living wage). I would do it while jumping up and down on the bed with bells around my ankles. Right?

Wrong. The experience made me feel even more miserable, and I considered my work to be subpar. I listened, but I didn't hear any critics. I wasn't even sure I knew who my critics were anymore.

Healthier people might say that their work was acceptable if they do not hear criticism. Healthier people would not need this sort of approval cum thorn in side. But by this time, I knew I was not healthy. I also knew that my way of thinking would not make sense whatsoever to any sort of reasonably healthy person.

This time when I listened for the critics, they came in droves. And the critic said, "I am worthless. I have failed. I don't matter. I am disgusting. There is no one that loves me. I have fucked up. I don't deserve to be alive." And I said it until I believed myself.

This disease took something I love to do, something I know I am good at doing, and it turned it into a source of misery. It made me spend more days that I can count on the floor of my apartment willing myself to die; unable to move even to use the toilet. Months later, even with medication and psychotherapy, I am incapacitated to the point where I am exhausted by an act as simple as brushing my teeth. Each and every effort is feels like swimming through cement.

So, with all due respect to the late Professor Pausch, I would like to say that he is only partially correct. Sometimes your critics are the ones who tell you they still love you and care. And, from time to time, your critics will need a little criticism. But there are some critics who need to be told to go fuck themselves. Gently. With a chainsaw.

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