Before You Criticize
By understanding context, the advice came to mean much more to me
The opening lines from Fitzgerald’s classic novel, “ The Great Gatsby” have come back to me in numerous ways over the last month. The latest was in Ryan Holiday’s “ 33 Things I stole from people smarter than me on my way to 33. “ For those who may have forgotten these lines from their High School reading, they are as follows.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
I’ll admit from the start that I’ve read these words numerous times and they have had little impact on me. However, in the current climate and amidst my own self-reflection, the words struck deep this time around.
Out of context, you might assume these words of advice were given to someone who had lived a life of comfort and ease. Someone who takes their station for granted and needs to be reminded that there are those who are not as well to do. In my head, I’m envisioning a fairy tale prince or princess being reminded of the commoners who may seem a bit rough around the edges compared to the refined and polished life in the castle.
However, that caricature is wrong. The Great Gatsby may be about the fantastically wealthy Jay Gatsby and his lavish garden parties and playboy shenanigans, but the receiver of this advice is Nick Carroway — the mild-mannered new college graduate living on the outskirts of the Gatsby compound. This life advice isn’t given to Gatsby or any of his wealthy compatriots as a finger-wagging reminder that they need to keep their privilege in check and not presume everyone has the same wealth. The advice is given to Nick by his father. The symbolism of this context has been lost on me till now.
And in understanding this context, the advice came to mean so much more to me.
I have fallen into the easy trap that many of us have — of looking past the advantages we have as we compare our lives against the lives seen on social media. In so doing, we lose any sense of perspective. We lose sight of the very real advantages we have been provided that were not in the form of trust funds or golden spoons.
The advantages that really matter can come in the form of love. Of safety. Of health. Of insight. Of hindsight. Of advice given from a loving caring parent.
These are the advantages Nick’s father is referring to.
The reminder to not criticize others without considering our own advantages and perhaps the context of the other reminds me of this: “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That is from Stephen Covey’s “ The 7 habits of highly effective people. “ Covey reminds us to pause our ongoing internal autobiography when interacting or viewing another human being. To avoid assuming that we know what the other is going or gone through. He tries to short circuit the narrative that goes like this, “I believe myself in a position to criticize the other because I, 1) believe I understand their situation, and 2) I believe that in a similar situation I would choose differently (i.e., better). “ The flaw resides in #1. #2 is dependent on #1. Our response to any situation is always based o the context we approach the situation with. And as Covey reminds us, we cannot simply intuit the circumstances of another’s life. We are in no place to assume they had the same advantages we’ve had.
Empathy is another way to frame the suggestion to consider another’s context before criticizing them. Reframed, before we criticize the other, allow yourself to feel empathy for them. We cannot possibly know the pain they are dealing with. Our advantages, no matter how small, put us in a position to extend empathy to the other.
One of the subtle ways I’ve learned on my own privilege, my own advantages has been in the way I quickly criticize others for their choices. It has been too easy for me to criticize someone who seems to be making poor financial decisions for themselves and/or their family. I fail to consider the many hours I’ve spent reading about personal finance. More importantly, I fail to appreciate the value my family placed on financial awareness — the values they instilled in me. The advice given to Nick is a reminder that to criticize another in an act of willful blindness to my advantages.
For too long I’ve wagged my own finger at the willful blindness of others. It is time to look into the mirror and remember before I criticize anyone, I should remember that not everyone has had the advantages I’ve had. And if I’ve had those advantages — it behooves me to show empathy, and look in the mirror, long before I’m in any position to criticize.