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How to handle unjust criticism or misunderstandings

Young woman misunderstood

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 03/03/24

The saints were very often labeled as unreasonable or fanatical. We can look at their example and learn how to face being misunderstood in a productive manner.

There’s a famous scene in the Bible in which St. Paul is accused of having been driven out of his mind by obscure theological learning. As a Christian, he no longer fit into society and so became a target of persecution. Indeed, this was the case for the entire early Church. The Roman authorities thought Christians were, at best, unreasonably stubborn. At worst, they were dangerously treasonous and incapable of thinking rationally enough to be productive members of society.

Meanwhile, the Christians themselves couldn’t have been happier. Their new faith set them free. Suddenly, life made sense. From their perspective, they’d never thought more clearly. It’s a remarkable example of unfair criticism and misunderstanding.

Misunderstood saints

The saints are often misunderstood in their time. Some disappear into the desert to be alone. One guy crawled to the top of a pole and stayed at the top for the rest of his life. Many chose death rather than making a quick, simple offering to an idol. The virgin martyrs were executed because they rejected marriage to older, non-Christian men. These choices display well-reasoned, intentionally chosen priorities. Christians choose how to live based on a rational set of beliefs; to dismiss them as unreasonable or suffering from poor mental health is inaccurate.

I suspect the reason this happens is because, if someone can be labeled in this way (call it gaslighting, if you will), then the actual truth can be avoided. For the Romans, it was easier to call Paul mad than to consider whether they, too, ought to follow Christ. Similarly, it’s easier to dismiss St. Anthony of the desert as an eccentric, or label St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Francis of Assisi as naive, or St. John Vianney as unintelligent, rather than examine our own spiritual condition.

This week, for the feast of St. John of God, we have another example. St. John had a conversion to the faith when he was in his 40s and subsequently began acting with such extreme Christian penance that people thought he’d had a mental breakdown. Rather than ask if mortifications were commendable, he was thrown into an asylum.

Labeling and dismissing others

I should make clear, here, that none of the saints we’ve reference above had ongoing mental illnesses, as far as we know. This article isn’t about how to face mental illness (advice about which I’m unqualified to give); it’s about the temptation to misunderstand and dismiss others. For instance, if I label someone as, “just showing off,” or claim, “he’s not normal,” then I don’t have to take seriously what that person actually did or said. If I did seriously consider what they did or said, I might very well realize I’m the one whose attitude needs an adjustment and who needs to change.

That’s from one perspective, which is the caution to stop labeling and dismissing each other so quickly because, in doing so, we might be dismissing saints. But I also find the other viewpoint interesting – what if I’m the one being misunderstood?

Misunderstood man praying

Feeling misunderstood

This has happened to me and I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. I thought I was communicating one thing with my words and actions but those around me interpreted me differently. I had my reasons but, because it wasn’t the usual choice, others ascribed an entirely different (and incorrect) motive to me.

It isn’t unexpected, these constant (often willful) misunderstandings. The experience of the early Christians makes clear that our faith and moral commitments will be misunderstood. We will be dismissed as mentally weak, confused, childish, or unreasonable. From the outside, we do seem an odd bunch. We believe that penance is joy, the next life is more important than this one, and self-sacrifice is self-fulfillment. We don’t fit in.

Historically, the Church accepts persecutions quietly but at the same time never, ever capitulates. How did the saints handle opposition?

After all, if you’re called unreasonable enough times, even the most confident person begins to doubt. When I announced I was becoming Catholic, everyone tried to talk me out of it. I was told I wasn’t thinking straight, that when I calmed down, I would see things differently (I never did see things differently. And I had never been calmer). I didn’t handle those discussions as well as I could have. Since then, I’ve taken a few lessons from the saints and how they bear up under misunderstanding.

How the saints handled being misunderstood

First, they may attempt to clarify but, in the long run, aren’t too worried about being misunderstood. They don’t attempt to save their reputation at the expense of their integrity.

Second, they maintain their identity through prayer and mutual support. Even if all the world misunderstands, we know that Christ and our fellow Christians understand us perfectly well.

Third, they rationally process their motives and actions for consistency with the truth. Opinions, even widely held opinions, are not the same as truth. Once the saints find the truth, no amount of misunderstanding of their motives, persecution, or social pressure is enough to separate them from it.

Fourth, they’re humble. A valuable lesson I’m still taking to heart is that, even if criticisms are unfair or overly harsh, there’s typically a grain of truth in them.

Fifth and finally, the saints are always looking for opportunities for personal growth, including how they respond to unfair criticisms. As for me, I’m far too eager to explain my side of the story and justify myself. I waste energy on a losing battle when I could instead be cultivating my interior life and improving my character.

Never doubting

St. John of God, accused of mental illness, was revealed to be a saint. St. Paul, even as he admitted his faith seemed foolish, knew it was the truth. And there are so many more examples. I know I make lots of questionable decisions, but I’ve never doubted the reasonableness of my faith.

When it comes to being Catholic and developing a personal relationship with Christ and his Church, even if everyone else on the planet thinks I’ve made a terrible decision from the flimsiest of motives, I know I’ve never been more in my right mind.

PsychologyRelationshipsSaintsSpiritual Life
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