In the April 2011 General Conference, Elder D. Todd Christofferson gave a talk which centered on how the Lord chastens us to help us grow. I came out of this talk with was this insight: we can be instructed through the feedback we receive from others, even mean-spirited feedback, if we look at it with the help of the Spirit.
An Important Attitude
Elder Christofferson teaches us that our Heavenly Father has high expectations for us, and has given us the commandments and the gospel in order to help us become as he is. Elder Oaks adds, “The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become.”
But in order to become what our Heavenly Father wants us to become, Elder Christofferson tells us that we need to have an attitude which actually seeks correction. He says,
“I would like to speak of one particular attitude and practice we need to adopt if we are to meet our Heavenly Father’s high expectations. It is this: willingly to accept and even seek correction… Though it is often difficult to endure, truly we ought to rejoice that God considers us worth the time and trouble to correct.”
If we are looking for correction, we’ll be able to learn how to change in the ways that God wants.
An Unlikely Source
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t always have angels appearing in my bedroom to give me divine correction. Where else can correction come from?
Elder Christofferson answers this question for us as well. He tells us that correction will come in many forms and from many sources. For example, it can come:
- As we pray, or as we study the scriptures
- From inspired leaders and fellow church members
- From parents and spouses
But Elder Christofferson tells us of one more group that can act as a source of correction. Those who are mean-spirited can also be a source of correction, and Elder Christofferson tells us how to get the gems from their correction.
“Even when we encounter mean-spirited criticism from persons who have little regard or love for us, it can be helpful to exercise enough meekness to weigh it and sift out anything that might benefit us.”
Can we really benefit when people say things cruelly, or badly, or meanly? Totally! If we bring that feedback humbly and faithfully to the Savior, he will, as he promised in Ether, not only show us our weaknesses but make weak things strong (Ether 12:27).
How the Hippo Lost His Hair
Consider this parable from a fantastic little book entitled “Where’s the Gift?” Pay attention to how the hippo might have benefited from even “mean spirited” feedback.
The first Hippo to walk the earth was not hairless like the hippos of today. He had a beautiful fur coat and a mane so thick it was rivaled only by that of the Lion. Although his coat had been inherited from his ancestors, Hippo took full credit for its beauty and luster and showed it off whenever he could. In fact, Hippo would grow quite ill-tempered at night because the darkness hid his coat from the envious glances of other animals.
Thanks to his elegant fur, Hippo didn’t need to sleep near the fire like the others – his coat kept him warm. Even so, each night Hippo would lie just a little closer to the flames. He wanted the light from the fire to shine on his fur so everyone could admire it twenty-four hours a day.
One evening Lion gave Hippo a gentle warning, suggesting softly that it might not be safe to sleep so close to the fire. Hippo ignored him. “Lion is just jealous,” he thought. “Jealous because all the animals can see both day and night that my coat is better than his.”
Jackal was also worried about Hippo’s coat catching fire. Jackal, however, despite her great intellect, did not have great tact. “You big hairy oaf,” grated Jackal. “Your inflated pride is matched only by your girth, and it’s going to get you into trouble one of these days.”
Hippo was indignant. “I didn’t ask for her opinion! How dare she speak to me like that. When she learns how to treat me with respect, I will listen.”
One night disaster struck. Hippo slept just a little too close to the fire. A stray spark flew into his fur and his exquisite coat burst into flames. Hippo made a desperate dash for the river, but by the time he got there it was too late. Although he couldn’t see it in the darkness, his fur was gone. He spent the rest of the night in the cool waters of the river.
When the sun rose the next morning, Hippo climbed onto the riverbank and shook himself off. He turned to admire his reflection in the water. Instead of a thick glossy coat, Hippo only saw charred flesh.
“If only I had listened to Lion, or even Jackal!” he wailed, then immediately plunged back into the water. To this day, to hide his embarrassment, Hippo spends the sunlit hours buried in the waters of the river. Only at night does he venture out, when he can eat without worrying who might catch a glimpse of his hideous hairless hide.
A few weeks ago, I decided to engage in a political discussion with a Facebook friend (I know, that was my first mistake). Perhaps less tactfully than the situation warranted, I shared my opinion. As most online dialogues are, this was ultimately fruitless. My perspectives went largely ignored, and in the end we were left with the same views we’d started with. I figured that was the end of it (that was my second mistake).
A few days later I happened to run into the mother of my friend. I had been in a car accident a few days earlier, and my hand was in a cast from an injury I had sustained in the wreck. Somewhat passive-aggressively, she said to me, “Oh, you’re hand! It’s amazing you were able to be so rude with one hand. I’d hate to see what you could do with two hands.”
As the Hippo
Internally, I was fuming. I desperately wanted to retort something like, “Too bad you can’t just get a cast to fix brain damage!”
I didn’t, by the way. I was finally making good decisions.
Still, I was the victim. How dare she insult me like that! And so passive-aggressively! I was left without any option but to sulk away, defeated. How spineless! All I could think was, “I’m furious! I’m angry! I’m, I’m…”
Oh my goodness, I’m a hippo!
(Insert Darth-Vader-esque “Noooooooooooo!”)
I didn’t appreciate what she’d said, or how she’d said it. What’s more, I didn’t agree that I had been “rude” – you could take my comment like that, but you can see anything you want if you squint long enough.
Still, none of that mattered. The fact that feedback had been given – regardless of what feedback had been given – told me something. Something in the way that I conducted myself could convey hardness, insensitivity, rudeness. And I could learn from that.
Stepping back from the situation helped me learn a thing or two about how I operate, and how I can operate better. In the same way, God can help inspire all of us about what we can improve, even when that inspiration is catalyzed by the (potentially incorrect) feedback of another.
David Brinkley said, “Successful people are those who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at them.” We can build a solid foundation, even with passive-aggressive bricks.
As the Jackal
But I like to think that I wasn’t the only hippo in this instance. In my mind, my Facebook friend was a hippo, too, and at worst I was a Jackal. She should learn how to take feedback better. Right?
Well, I’d say a simple answer is something along the lines of “Who cares?’
Could she have responded better? Of course. Could ‘mama bear’ have responded better? Of course. But is that what I should be concentrating on? No! I should be looking for bricks. The mere presence of bricks tells me that I probably didn’t accomplish what I set out to do.
In this case, I was trying to participate in a civil and productive discussion; that didn’t happen. Instead of being concerned about whether or not the hippo keeps sleeping close to the fire, I should be looking for bricks that help me successfully reach my purpose next time. If my next discussion is equally lacking of civility and productivity, I haven’t benefited at all from this one.
Look to the mean-spirited feedback you receive. It’s not a stretch to think that there is a nugget of truth contained within, and that with the help of a loving God and his Holy Spirit, you can begin the process of repentance and change that will enrich your life.