I picked up How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie last week as I watched the election unfold with the surprise electoral win of Donald Trump. I added it to the pile of books I’ll be working through as part of The God Project. It seems to me that we’ve lost the ability to be winsome and influential. I was hoping that this book would give me a few clues on how to influence the world around me for the cause of peace and justice.
Imagine my surprise when Chapter 1 is summarized with this simple phrase: “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” Oh dear. This sounds very familiar. Am I about to lose one of my favorite vices? Criticism, when it’s done well… it can be very satisfying. All those posts that fly around Facebook with piles of hearts and little blue circles with the thumb’s up… have some really delicious snark in them. (Snark is only delicious when aimed at the other guy.) And I am perfectly willing to admit that the surprise electoral win of Donald Trump flattened me for a few days and I had plenty of condemnation that I was happy to express with my characteristic acerbic wit. Suddenly I was feeling new fears and considering questions very different from only a day or two before. The information and misinformation flowing through social media underscored and accentuated my personal feelings as I took note of the suffering of my friends along side the triumph of some of my other (white) friends. How then do we reach beyond the polarization of American politics where each side has a script unread and unheeded by the other side? What looks like a win for bigotry and white nationalism, and white evangelical preachers being easily manipulated for political gain in this country, is actually… well… what? I don’t know.
How to Win Friends and Influence People was originally copyright in 1936, so I’m confident that Mr. Carnegie’s voice speaks from a kinder, gentler world, right? Well, maybe not. It wouldn’t be long after these words were carefully pressed to paper for the first time before the work of Nazi Germany would come into full focus in the world. The christianity of the day underscored the idea that the Jews were guilty of killing Jesus. And that bit of faulty theology made it easy for Hitler to fan into a flame of hatred against the Jews. What else does the church of modern America believe that aligns with Nazi thought? I think it’s a question worth some careful consideration. Since we know the fruit of that tree, shouldn’t we be rather careful about allowing the sapling in our garden? Can we change the world by doing theology more responsibly? Is it helpful, at this late date, to remember that Jesus gave up his life, it was not taken from him? I don’t know.
The first chapter of the book is full of examples from individuals with names I recognize. Lincoln, Twain, Roosevelt, and others. A quote from Benjamin Franklin struck me. “I will speak ill of no man, and speak all the good I know of everybody.” Dale Carnegie adds “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain – and most fools do, but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” The examples Carnegie sites are powerful and thought provoking.
I remember being on the board of directors of a local arts organization. A gentlemen joined the board and became President, and caused no end of havoc among us. His abusive of authority left a number of us in shreds. I remember being in the midst of expressing a thought in a board meeting when he looked me in the eye and told me very forcefully to “Shut Up!” and I looked at him with a raised eyebrow, and continued what I was saying. He said those words again. Later I would learn how much that one exchange between him and I did damage to the other women at the table. Their identification with me as those words were spoken, often bringing up their own painful stories, this event and others like it brought us into a shared space of pain. And before long, we were a tight knit group of women fighting against a bully for the future of the arts organization that had nurtured us all. And trust me, I used every bit of my considerable vocabulary in criticizing this man for the way he treated us. He’d once been a dear friend, and to watch him turn on me and become an enemy was deeply painful.
There was one woman who didn’t lose her cool dealing with him, and I noticed her grace under fire. Her name is Karen Ryder Lee and I wanted so badly to be like her, but I was so busy fighting fire with fire that I missed the opportunity to learn from her. In retrospect I believe her secret was that she didn’t criticize, condemn, or complain. She simply worked hard to understand where he was coming from, and she was endlessly creative in dealing with him. She was able to work with him in a way I never could. She is someone I admire a great deal. Her winsome ways made it possible for her to work as a peace maker on the board of directors, and she has been very influential figure in the history of that organization.
Sadly, though the gentlemen in question is someone I care about, I’ve never seen a road back to a relationship with him that wouldn’t involve more abuse. That reality makes me very sad. And at the time, with my own dramatically awful divorce in the works, I already lived life in a battlefield. I eventually resigned my spot on the board of directors, and I found my own peace by removing myself from that battlefield. The gentlemen eventually found a place better suited to his many gifts and personal style, and the arts organization is now functioning as well as it ever has (mad props to the current board of directors!). The other women from that board remain friends I love fiercely. We went through that fire together. I wouldn’t trade those friends for the world, I won’t be silent when I witness abuse, nor will I ever be the kind of woman who shuts up when told to (though I have, too many times). Still, there is wisdom in expressing the full lengths of God-given creativity in dealing with injustice in it’s many forms.
The past being what it is, and an uncertain future looming large… I find the challenge to find a new path forward without criticism and condemnation to be a nearly insurmountable one. And maybe I should clarify that I condemn racism and bigotry in all forms, in the strongest possible terms, the challenge is to still find a way to avoid calling an individual a bigot, which just burns bridges. Honestly, I don’t know how to live this way and I question whether it’s even possible for me to grow into that place. Carnegie’s words “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain – and
most fools do” may be ringing in my ears for the weeks and months ahead. I am a lot of things, but I’m no fool. So now that this lesson has hit home with such a resounding thud, it’s going to take some real creativity and grace to live out this challenge. Maybe it’s best to remember that in giving up criticism and condemnation, I may strengthen the effectiveness and influence of my work for peace and justice. That is a begrudgingly good reason to give it a go.
Carnegie uses Abraham Lincoln for an example, he lampooned a politician by the name of James Shields. This lead to a duel and Lincoln narrowly escaped a fight to the death with broadswords on a sandbar of the Mississippi River. This brush with death taught Lincoln to never again write an insulting letter. And when others spoke harshly of the southern people, Lincoln replied: “Don’t criticize them, they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.” In fact, according to Carnegie, after a particularly disastrous choice by one of Lincoln’s Generals in the (anything but) Civil War, Lincoln sat down and wrote him the severest rebuke, a letter he never sent. Carnegie states that “Lincoln had learned by bitter experience that sharp criticisms and rebuke almost invariably end in futility.” Fair enough. I seem to learn my lessons the hard way, and I certainly have a few scars from battles in the sand.
“With malice toward none, with charity for
all, with firmness in the
right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the
work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who
shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do
all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among
ourselves and with all nations.”
-Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural address, March 4, 1865, about a month before his assassination.
Mad props, Abe. Maybe I’ll keep a penny in my pocket to remind me:
“Malice toward none, charity for all’.