“If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself you should say: ‘He obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned.’”
Epictetus, ancient Greek “Stoic” philosopher
“Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet, playwright, novelist.
“Merely through the constant need to ward off, one can become weak enough to be unable to defend oneself any longer.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher
“‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
“Lord, defend me from my friends; I can account for my enemies”
Charles D’Hericault, author
Once again, we see here an improbable belfry. And yes, this IS a belfry (the tower to the far left of the photo). This bell tower stands at one corner of a large castle in Salzburg, Austria. The castle is known as the “Hohensalzburg Fortress“, and was built originally in the 11th century A.D., completed in the year 1077. Later it was enlarged 3 times, in the 12th, 15th, and 17th centuries. Its base stands nearly 400 feet above the town of Salzburg below. Here is another picture of it:
As you can see here, the castle and its belfry stand WAY the heck on up there! This is clearly a fortress meant for defensive purposes, and for that purpose it was apparently very well designed. NO army that ever came against this castle defeated it, and there were quite a few who tried.
I would guess that, of all the things one could say or write about any castle, the fact that it was undefeated in its entire history would be one of the greatest. Any belfry, as well as the bats and/or the shrink who inhabited it, would be very proud to be a part of that! Well, maybe …
Almost everyone knows what it’s like to have other people criticize them, mistreat them, accuse them of things they have not done, attack them in any number of ways. And almost everyone also knows what it’s like, upon learning of such attacks, to instantly want to jump to defend themselves, and sometimes to attack back. The sad thing is that after having suffered harm after harm, attack after attack, criticism after criticism, we all learn not to trust others; not our families, not our coworkers, not our friends,in some cases not even our very best friends.
And what is the eventual byproduct of not trusting almost anyone? We end up living continually in a defensive posture. The question is, though, is living in a defensive mode consistent with good mental health?
Recall our discussion about mental health from a few weeks ago? My stance was that the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr serves as one of the best models of good mental health we have. Here it is again:
“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
The picture painted by this prayer depicts one who is NOT constantly on the defensive. The person who lives out the prayer is one who has an open heart and open hands as she or he approaches each new day, each encounter within that day. This person accepts that the world IS and will be sinful, and yet still “enjoys” each moment, one at a time. This person expects hardship, perhaps even expecting that part of that hardship will be the onslaught of others who hate or dislike, who desire to prop themselves up by taking this person down a notch or two. This person trusts in God to make all things right, not necessarily instantly, but in God’s own timing, and only provided that this person is surrendered to God’s will.
In contrast, a person playing life defensively will be always on guard, always watchful for the next attempt by someone evil to break through his or her outer walls, so that he or she can counterattack and repel this coldhearted dog! There is seldom room for enjoyment of life, except for those rare and fleeting moments when you can celebrate having successfully defended yourself, your reputation, your turf, etc., against yet another attack. There is never an allowance that life is somehow meant to be difficult, never an allowance that people WILL be unloving no matter how well defended we are, never an acknowledgement that in spite of the hatred and unhealthy competition out there in the world that we are still called to be loving.
Did you happen to read the quote from Nietzsche above? Although I part company with Nietzsche on his views on faith in God, his insight here, if accepted, will set another bat free from our belfries: When someone lives constantly on the defensive, fending off attack after attack after attack, it eventually wears this person down. It weakens us, and robs us of time in our lives we cannot get back.
So am I advocating allowing others to constantly run over us, to abuse us, mistreat us, never to fight back? Well, someone infinitely wiser than I once did advocate just such a thing:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well … I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 6: 38-40, 44-45
However, I also believe that Jesus was in favor of being careful, of having healthy boundaries, of being smart about things, of not doing anything that would open ourselves up to justified prosecution, and to avoid needless harm:
“I am sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves. So be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”
This can be a very difficult balancing beam to walk, indeed. Difficult, though nowhere near impossible.
First of all, the attitude we take into each day again becomes key. We will have good, healthy boundaries, knowing and expecting that others will do things, either deliberately or incidentally, that will make life more difficult for us. As Anne Lamott pointed out above, we can say “No” for ourselves, and not have to explain further. We can, as a couple of the other quotes above instruct, go about our business as the serenity prayer calls us to, regardless of whether others try to criticize or do us harm. But, we are careful not to do anything to directly bring criticism on our heads, or harm to those whom we care for and are responsible to defend.
In terms of dealing with unfair things that come our way, I am reminded of the TV show, Kung Fu, from my adolescence. I always loved the character Caine, portrayed by David Carradine, as he traveled the old west in search of his long-lost half-brother. However, he repeatedly, because of his spiritual training in a Shaolin monastery in his boyhood homeland of China, finds himself stepping in to defend various people being unfairly treated, oppressed, or harmed, when the odds were long against them. The thing is, though, that Caine never took the offensive, and really was not defending himself, either, when “fighting”. Rather, his opponents always were the ones on the offensive, and Caine would merely use their anger and unrighteous energy to their demise. Every time they would come at him, he would merely feign and dodge, calmly tossing them on by as they lunged at him again and again. Very little energy was used up; always he maintained his own boundaries, and never harmed anyone beyond what it took for the other to simply stop trying to fight. It serves as a wonderful picture of the balancing act we’re calling ourselves to here. The reed that bends with the wind (the ‘wind’ being those who would strike us on one cheek, or sue to take our coat), allowing the wind to flow on by, but does not break. The reed maintains its foothold, its drive to love others and to stand for good and compassion always.
I am not inhuman. I know what it is to want to fight back. There have been a few instances just in the last few weeks in my place of work in which certain persons have mistreated others unjustly, and it makes my blood boil thinking about those things. If and when there is an appropriate way, I will gladly stand in the breech and call for justice. But, until then it would not be healthy, and I’m afraid my true motivation would simply be to see the “oppressor” suffer, rather than to see a wrong righted. Until then I want to be the one we talked about last week, the one encouraging those who are hurting. I want to be the one who encourages them and myself to “live well”, and to leave all else to God’s good and faithful hands.
Craig Meek, M.D.