How do we find a balance between criticism and cynicism? When does critical thinking, that centrepiece of reason so vital to human progress and intellectual life, stops mobilizing our constructive impulses and topples over into the destructiveness of impotent complaint and embittered resignation, begetting cynicism?
Maria Popova, Founder of Brain Pickings, urges us to maintain the “fine but firm line between critical thinking and cynical complaint.” To cross it is to exile ourselves from the land of active reason and enter a limbo of resigned inaction.
But cross it we do, perhaps nowhere more readily than in our capacity for merciless self-criticism. We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.
The English psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips explores in his magnificent essay Against Self-Criticism, found in his insightful collection Unforbidden Pleasures. Phillips writes on the diversity of our psychic experiences as the importance of “fertile solitude,” the value of missing out, and the rewards of being out of balance — examines how “our virulent, predatory self-criticism [has] become one of our greatest pleasures,” reaching across the space-time of culture. He elaborates: “In broaching the possibility of being, in some way, against self-criticism, we have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism; in which the alternatives of celebration and criticism are seen as a determined narrowing of the repertoire; and in which we praise whatever we can.”
Our masochistic impulse for self-criticism, he argues, arises from the fact that ambivalence is the basic condition of human lives. The paradox of life is that frustration is necessary for satisfaction.
Phillips elaborates on Freud’s ideological legacy: “In Freud’s vision of things we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate, we love; wherever we love, we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can also frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us, we always believe that they can satisfy us. We criticise when we are frustrated — or when we are trying to describe our frustration, however obliquely — and praise when we are more satisfied, and vice versa. Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings.”
In our familiar and simplistic terms, love and hatred are the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa.
This leads to the ambiguous situation: “Where there is devotion there is always protest… where there is trust there is suspicion.”
This presupposes that criticism is necessary dimension of our lives. Thus we need to criticise ourselves and others, keeping in mind the self-love that is always involved in this criticism leading to self-criticism.
Phillips adds: “Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.” Further: “Self-criticism is nothing if it is not the defining, and usually the overdefining, of the limits of being. But, ironically, if that’s the right word, the limits of being are announced and enforced before so-called being has had much of a chance to speak for itself.”
Franz Kafka, the great patron-martyr of self-criticism, captured this pathology of merciless self-criticism perfectly: “There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.”
So the challenges before us are: Can we criticise ourselves and become aware of our inadequacy? Can we go further and employ creative self-criticism so that we do not become completely cynical and self-defeating? Can we employ realistic and creative criticism, leading to mercy, compassion and trust?
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)