i wanted to like it

April 17th, 2011

If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything.

Verses on the Faith Mind

I just finished reading a book. I wanted to like it.

Those last five words I wanted to like it are the tip-off to any author that her book is about to get trashed. I wanted to like it is an absolution before the executioner goes to work. I could write a wicked little bit on Goodreads, a quick dismissal, an eternal damnation, and a triumphant last word. One star. I thought so much about my clever condemnation while I was reading that I literally felt sick. I had to wonder what was more disagreeable: the book or me?

So I stopped myself.

Writers get trashed a lot. Is it more than chefs or dry cleaners or college professors or car detailers? Probably not. The web has made everyone a public critic of everything. Sometimes that’s all the interactive media seems to be: a shooting range. The whole world is erupting in opinions. We all have opinions. The problem starts when you cherish your opinions, when you elevate them, and, yes, even when you express them. Why express an opinion except to elevate yourself and demean others? Loft your opinion and it’s going to land somewhere it hurts. You might even shoot yourself. Look closely to see what you are sharing when you unleash poison and pain.

In my humble opinion, there’s no such thing as a humble opinion.

All this gives me pause about the way I glibly injure innocents and overlook the truth. What do I mean by the truth? The truth is what you don’t read in a book, and even less, what you think of it.

I just finished reading a book. I’d say more, but I’m finished.

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  1. just last night I stopped reading a book less than 30 pages into it. How amusingly parallel the universe can be, especially since it was the 4th in a series and I had enjoyed the first 3 and very much wanted to enjoy this 4th.

    Good thing – for both of us – there are so many good books out there!

    Comment by Emily — April 17, 2011 @ 8:38 am

  2. We all have opinions. I have a lot of them. We all have a lot of them. It is what I do with them and if I choose to hold them against anyone or anything that really counts. I try to recognize them, read a little into them about myself then let them blow away in the wind. Doesn’t always work but it helps when I can. What can I say? I’m human.

    I find myself typing comments or sharing my opinion sometimes then I think later -what was my point…was that necessary…what good will come of that? Sometimes I justify it by reminding myself that someone asked for it. Even then -is it necessary? I suppose that’s my not so humble opinion.

    P.S. Glad you posted this. Thank you. Been on my mind a lot lately.

    Comment by Nichole — April 17, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  3. To me, strong doubts about stating your reaction should be treated respectfully. If you doubt that you should give a reaction, withhold it. But maybe your insights are treasured and of value to others. If you wanted to like the book but didn’t, that piece of information is worth knowing, I think.

    There has to be a difference between calm statements that you couldn’t like the book and “trashing” it so just giving your reaction may be a help. If you really think the book is atrocious, all the more reason to state that, at least in circles where people are contributing reactions.

    Comment by Bill — April 17, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  4. So, instead of warning someone to not read a book that may be a waste of their time and money, you chose to say nothing. Authors need critics as any artist does in order to improve their work. Inaction is an action too. Somehow I feel like invoking Godwin’s law.

    All the best, and write that review.

    Comment by Jordan — April 17, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  5. I’ve never yet convinced someone that my opinion is their own, or that it is truth. Self-service is not service. At least, not the service that matters most. If you believe that criticism improves anyone’s work, then that’s just what you believe. There is no such thing as constructive criticism. Artists change, mature and grow in spite of criticism, just as all living things do. You can try it on your kids, or on yourself.

    All things considered, reading anything is hardly a waste of time, and the money? You’ve got to be kidding.

    You made me look up Godwin’s law, but that wasn’t a waste of time either. Our experience is our own.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 17, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

  6. Karen,
    We have expressed a lot of opinions. I don’t think we understand each other any better than before. I am going to back away peaceably now. My mistake in not inhibiting the stimulus to post an inflammatory comment.


    Comment by Jordan — April 17, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

  7. @Jordan – precisely why a gassho is so useful. In gassho!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 17, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

  8. I teach in the public school system, primary children. Before they even have adult teeth, my wheels are spinning and I fret about where it is I am sending my dear students. To get an expensive liberal arts university education that teaches critical thinking, how to be critical and how clever it is to be critical! It amazes me to think how many critiques I have written about anything and everything. SIGH…so many of us trained to attack.
    You wrote about your daughter seeing through things. I think many youth go to university and think that the criticism they are learning to craft is ‘the truth’ and seeing through. It is very good to question things. Too bad university takes youthful observation and sharpens it into the arrow of opinion – to be hurled with self-assurance.
    Primary children can be so critical yet it is really observation and communication. ..”Oh man, Math again” No malice just Math again. No big rants about the patriarchy of math. I am very blessed to work with children.
    The working in the “system” though, hmmmmm…just read my critique.

    Comment by Kelly — April 17, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

  9. Just curious, does the feedback on the link about Hand Wash Cold affect the way you may write?

    The teacher’s comment above made me think about how we teach people to improve based on feedback. Perhaps, in this case, life has placed you at the intersection of that author’s life for a reason. Are you going to try to make a person better or protect this person’s ego? Sometimes we need each other for those processes.

    I think our opinions, dislikes and preferences are useful tools when applied properly and respectfully.

    Comment by Heather — April 18, 2011 @ 10:52 am

  10. If it is a knife, it wounds. If I wield a knife, I feel powerful, sometimes arrogant and even smug. If the knife cuts me, I feel pain. We all do. I do not, indeed cannot, write to please others. I write because I write. Writers do not own the writing; the writing owns them.

    From a Buddhist point of view, this could not be clearer. It is the difference between truth and delusion. We are all one, divided only by our likes and dislikes, preferences and opinions. By our thinking alone we defile the truth of our one true nature. And because that truth is beyond our conceptualization, the practice makes it simple: do no harm.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 18, 2011 @ 11:05 am

  11. Oh Karen, please please write more about your thoughts and reflections on the relationship between writing, the arts, and Buddhism.
    All my life I have been accused of sitting on the fence, and yet while I could acknowledge why my critics were driven to make such comments (never issued appreciatively!) still it always felt as if their words hardly expressed the whole story, the full account of what was happening. The truth seems to me to lie in the small spaces, the brief silences between the words. It is never so much what is said, but the way in which it is stated. Your words always make me think. They seem to emerge enveloped in a blanket of silent contemplation. They always speak the truth, regardless of what they say, because they come from that space within you which is always connected to a greater awareness, a truth which both encompasses each one of us, and which shines out from your, and our, inner being, through our words, actions and most importantly of all, through our intentions.

    Comment by Edith — April 18, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  12. Well, Karen. I pick up your books every week and find the equivalent of a desperately needed hug. (And that’s totally inadequate.)This is well after both volumes have been heavily underlined and highlighted, the pages still hand me just what I need in each new moment.

    (And this is coming from someone who’s high school prophecy well over 20 years ago was, ” Laura _____ will be writing a column called ‘And If You Want My Opinion’ for Ms. Magazine”.)

    Comment by Laura — April 18, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  13. Comically bad writing on my part—what I meant was that my likening of your writing to a desperately needed hug is inadequate (it’s something ineffably more), not that your writing is inadequate!!!!!

    My son is emptying the recycling bin all over the back porch, that’s my excuse.

    Comment by Laura — April 18, 2011 @ 11:51 am

  14. Hi Karen,

    Is a person’s constructive criticism always to be viewed as a knife and harmful? What if it is more of an ointment and applied with care? If we expect children to be able process feedback and to apply what they learn, should not adults — in all forms of life?

    Criticism puts limits creativity only if a person allows it too. You make the case for yourself that it has no effect on you personally which is great. Clearly not taking criticism to heart can be done. In the case of the book you read, if you just did not know why you do not like the book it is probably best not to say anything.

    But if you have a ideas for how the book could be more readable (structurally, flow, etc) I think it’s a good thing to give feedback.

    The writer wrote it to share his/her ideas. This person is putting their work out into the world. That is asking for people to have an opinion about it. I’m sure the writer would like it the content to be accessible to a number of readers. That’s why it was published, not just people who will tell them what they want to hear.

    Comment by Heather — April 18, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

  15. I think it is quite easy to see that opinions are the source of conflict, and what you are defending when you defend your opinion. You’ve got to see that clearly, and afterwards you can see the truth, which is not the subject of opinions.

    Editors edit. Critics criticize. There is a difference.

    Is a flower blooming to elicit an opinion? Does the sun rise so that we will like or dislike it? I think you can see how far we stretch the truth to validate our own opinion. Why cherish it so? It is not real.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 18, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

  16. Thanks for your response…

    Comment by Heather — April 18, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  17. I think social media has enabled a lot of people to express negativity, criticism, and downright vitriol with even more fervor. The anonymity aspect of the internet has empowered people to be more reactive and vicious, and I often wonder if certain comments would be made if they had to be shared in person.

    Comment by Swirly — April 19, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  18. I came back here today after reading a particularly harsh opinion on facebook. Reading the comments exchanged since my first visit has planted this concept more firmly in my understanding. I have gratitude for the opinions expressed and Karen’s responses and the illumination they both have provided.

    Comment by Joan — April 19, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  19. Swirly, good point. To say or do something in person takes true fearlessness. We must be fearless to be kind.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 19, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  20. Thought-provoking post and comments. I believe the only time criticism can lead to change and/or improvement is if the owner of the work has requested criticism. Explicitly requested. Agree that sending works out into the world currently signals that they are valid targets for opinion, but do not agree that this is necessarily helpful to the creators. I imagine that the opposite is more likely to be true.

    Comment by KateR — April 19, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  21. “There is no such thing as constructive criticism.”

    You slay me with such words. Some times I read a line of yours and laughter rises from me, even if it is an uncomfortable truth, because my soul is so happy to recognize it—as when you described the practice of rewashing dishes WITHOUT saying a word about it.

    But then a line like this one turns my head around, makes so much of what I’ve been taught—and what I practice—become questionable.

    I struggle with wanting to offer my sons unconditional acceptance and love, letting them know they are enough just as they are…and also with wanting to offer them skills on how to be polite or how to clean up after themselves. Is there room for both?

    I so enjoy goodreads, but now I’m wondering if the adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” applies there too??

    Comment by Deirdre — April 20, 2011 @ 6:44 am

  22. Deirdre,
    Your question is a good one because it points directly to the place that all confusion and criticism arises: your thinking mind. Of course there is room for both. There is room for everything. The point of my practice is to see where my words arise. Am I elevating myself, entertaining myself, reassuring myself?

    We teach skills to everyone we live with and around, not just our children. We teach by doing and showing, rarely by talking. When we teach by our actions, it might seem as if we are instructing others, but we are actually teaching ourselves. In that way, yes, it’s important that we “teach” our children how to be polite, how to clean up, and how to take responsibility.

    Kind speech is one way to take responsibility.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 20, 2011 @ 7:10 am

  23. “In my humble opinion, there’s no such thing as a humble opinion.”

    I liked that line, a lot.

    I once belonged to a writer’s group where no one was willing to offer constructive criticism. Meeting was a sweet, but useless exercise.

    I aspire to have less opinions and yet, find that in hearing others’ opinions, room is often made for growth and opening.

    Comment by 6512 and growing — April 20, 2011 @ 9:37 am

  24. Everything I write here, and everything in my experience of my life, is offered as a practice. The Verses on the Faith Mind, which I link to at the top, is one of the most concise and profound guides to enlightened truth. Of course, we have thoughts and feelings about everything. But when we attach to them, elevate them, cherish and defend them we are functioning from a wholly delusional point of view. Holding to that point of view, we experience our own pain and inflict it on others. Moreover, we blind ourselves to the absolute truth which is not confined to our thoughts and views.

    I happen to love the Verses on the Faith Mind, which reminds me so succinctly that to “set up what you like against what you don’t like is the disease of the mind.” You can really only appreciate it when you get sick of sickness and desperate for peace.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 20, 2011 @ 9:55 am

  25. I so appreciate your reply to my comment, and how you share your practice here.

    One of my favorite quotes has always been this from Robert Lewis Stevenson:
    “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.”

    Perhaps for too long I’ve thought that knowing what I prefer—having, knowing and expressing opinions— were essential to knowing myself well and being fully alive. In my big family with big voices, the only opinion not tolerated was not having one.

    Why does this concept scare me so? Because selfhood seems so fragile…or not real, which can be freeing or terrifying? I don’t know.

    Comment by Deirdre — April 20, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  26. Deirdre – it is both freeing and terrifying, because selfhood, or what we think of selfhood, is not real. Self is a concept. It is the name we give to our ideas, to our thoughts, to the commentary and commentator in our heads. The mistake is that we think it is fixed, solid, permanent, real, separate from everything and everyone else.

    Another word we give to selfhood is “soul.” And then we tell ourselves that the soul is eternal and it gives us the false security that even though our bodies will die, we will live forever.

    In truth, we are eternal. But the Self that is eternal is not “me” or “my ideas.”

    So, there you have it. Stevenson was quotable, but not enlightened. Humbly have no preferences, imposed neither by external nor internal voices, and you are truly alive. You have entered the eternal.

    Your family sounds like one where discussion and debate is sport. Like all sports, that’s fine for play. Until someone gets hurt. Then, what is the point of the jostle? Who wins and what is won?

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 20, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  27. Psychiatrists get trashed a whole lot too. I was recently at a lunch where a man took about 20 minutes to tell me what a farce my profession was. I gave him some accurate information and left it at that but I was angry mostly for his dismissal of serious mental illness.

    Anyway, thanks for this great post, I really needed to read this today. I tend to cast my opinions about quite mindlessly and I remind myself of the aforementioned jackass. See there I go again…


    Comment by Bobbi — April 21, 2011 @ 8:06 am

  28. Bobbi, one day I’m going to have to find you in France. Or perhaps I already have.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 21, 2011 @ 9:43 am

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