On Taking It Personally

Recently, I was told not to “take it personally.” It’s not important for this piece to discuss in what context this was referring. What is important, to me anyways, is this phrase people throw around so haphazardly, “don’t take it personally.”

The common belief as to why some individuals choose to use this phrase is that they are hoping to cushion the possible damage done to the self-esteem of the one being criticized. They see it as a preemptive act of triage. In reality, it is a passive-aggressive approach to expressing criticism – it let’s the critic place responsibility for possibly damaging a person’s self-esteem solely into the hands of the one being criticized. In essence they are saying, “I’m about to point out some flaw I perceive in your character, so if you feel bad as a result, just know it’s all on you, not me.”

Criticism, expressed effectively or not, is always personal – there’s no getting around this fact, and the critic needs to buck up and accept this responsibility. Criticism is inherently about “me,” a person, so logically, we do take it personally. If we were robots, maybe this would not be the case.

When it comes to using the phrase, “don’t take it personally,” my advice is, don’t. First, ask yourself, how will my criticism benefit the person at whom it is directed? If it seems it would be of no benefit, keep it to yourself. If indeed it would benefit the other person, then maybe preface your criticism by asking for permission to give it. “Hey, would you like some constructive feedback?” Then maybe, “You’re a friend/colleague and you know I truly want the best for you/the team.” I personally add, “This is just my opinion, so please bear this in mind.”

If you happen to be the one at the other end of the phrase, “don’t take it personally,” I would implore you, by all means, to take it personally, and let the critic know just how backward that phrase is. If you don’t, then the critic will not have had the opportunity to learn just how non-constructive such an expression can be. Of course, there are those out there who would say, “well, John, it’s not our responsibility to teach others how to communicate effectively.” Yes, yes it is. We are social beings – we are always adjusting how we behave based on the direct or indirect feedback of others within our environment. Now, whether one chooses to change his or her behavior based on our feedback, is of course out of our hands – but this fact should not silence us, hardly. I’m fairly certain that change is not born of silence or inaction.

So, do not go quietly. Take it personally and use your voice to let others know that because we are persons, all human communication is personal.

Genie – Version 3

The Advocate and the Authority

Author’s note: This is the second dialogue of the Advocate Dialogues. The first, The Advocate and the Attendant, need not be read in order to follow this one, however, there are a few minor references to that particular piece.

Setting:

The near future.

A typical office, in a typical office building, in a typical downtown, of any typical major city. There is a large window on one wall that extends from floor to ceiling so that people on the street can be seen going about their daily routines. An unassuming man in a white suit, about 50 years of age, stands behind a large white desk gesturing to a woman to have a seat in the only chair in the room other than his own. She is thin and somewhat disheveled, as if maybe she has not slept well for some time. She is dressed casually, in jeans, a black t-shirt, and a lightweight, light-yellow windbreaker. She appears to be in her late twenties to early thirties.

There is no indication as to what kind of business takes place in this office. No signage of any kind, no nameplate on the desk to signify the man in white’s name or title.

The scene commences with the woman having just settled into her seat as the the man in white looks over some documentation in a white file folder.

Dialogue:

So, it says here that you’ve come for a consultation to discuss a prescription for the Decision Pill.

Nods. Do you know how long this will take? I wasn’t really told what to expect.

Yes, I must apologize for that. It really varies from person to person, so it’s difficult to say exactly – but I would guess no more than a half hour. I’ll have a better idea once we get under way, though. It could be the case that we’ll have you out of here in ten minutes. Smiles.

Great.

The Advocate closes the folder and sets it to the side of the desk. Okay, let’s begin. So, we’re just going to have a conversation, and hopefully by the end of it we’ll be in a better place to determine whether or not the Decision Pill is a viable solution for you. How’s that sound?

Sounds fine. I’m ready. Smiles.

Settles into his chair. So, how did you hear about us?

Actually, through an Attendant.

Oh? Your Attendant?

No, no. Laughs. He works on contract for our company. He comes in every now and then to work with anyone who might need that sort of thing.

I see.

Yeah. He said coming here for some kind of black pill had helped him out quite a bit – he didn’t really go into detail, though – just said maybe I should come check it out.

Well that’s nice to hear. I’m glad he was able to point you our way. Speaking of pills… reaches under his desk for something… the one you seek is not black… then places a clear bottle of yellow pills onto the desk… but yellow. Smiles.

Her eyes light up. So there really is a pill that can make decisions for us?

Truth be told, we don’t prescribe many of these… I can’t even recall the last time I did.

Really? Why is that?

The side effect is particularly off-putting.

Oh? What is it?

Apparently… picks up the bottle and reads over its label to himself, then… upon taking the pill, whatever decision you are struggling with will be made, but then shortly thereafter you will lose your freedom.

Lose my freedom? Pauses. What does that even mean? Laughs.

However it is you experience freedom, you will no longer be able to do so.

How I experience freedom? Looks puzzled.

Yes. I take it you’ve never thought about this before. Laughs. Who has, right? Sets the bottle of pills down and leans forward folding his arms together upon the desk. But seriously, take a moment to think about it now. How is it you experience freedom?

Hmm. Pauses. I guess by doing what I want, when I want.

Mhm. And does that involve choosing what you want?

Yes, definitely.

And deciding for yourself the direction of your own life?

Yes, okay. Pauses. So are you saying if I lose my freedom, I won’t be able to decide things for myself?

If exercising your ability to choose, to decide, qualifies for you what it means to be free, then yes, it would seem so. Now do you see why we rarely prescribe these?

Laughs. Well, I literally have nothing to lose then. I haven’t been able to decide anything for myself in ages. Looks out at the people milling about on the streets.

Oh? So this has been a pattern for you?

What? Not being able to make decisions?

Yes.

Unfortunately, it has been. Laughs, then… I mean, I’m pretty much here today because I can’t bring myself to make a decision, aren’t I? Looks into her lap.

So what do you typically do, then, when you need to make a decision?

Well, I don’t make them, or I let others make them for me. That’s been my modus operandi for awhile now.

So you avoid decision making altogether?

Yes. I guess most of the time I just let them come to their own natural conclusions – let them work themselves out. Half smiles then looks away.

And that hasn’t worked?

Shrugs. It works, but it sucks.

Why does it suck?

Oh come on. You know. It makes me seem weak. Makes me feel ashamed of myself because apparently I can’t even decide the simplest things.

Have they all been simple things?

I think some of them should have been.

And you seem weak? To whom?

People who know me. Family, co-workers, friends… laughs as she shakes her head.

What’s going on with your friends?

Ugh. I haven’t spoken to them in ages. They’ve stopped calling, reaching out.

Leans back in his chair. They have… or you have?

She stands, approaches the window. Begins to cry softly.

The Advocate simply listens.

Oh god, why am I crying? This is so silly.

Silly? Rises from his chair. How are tears ever silly? We are born with the ability to cry, so why shouldn’t we from time to time? Removes a box of tissues from a desk drawer then joins her at the window. Places a hand gently on her shoulder then offers her one.

Sighs. Wipes her face. Wow. I wasn’t expecting to fall apart like this. Laughs. I’m so sorry.

No need to apologize. Tears often fall freely in this space, almost as if it were a condition to be here. Smiles and hands her another tissue.

Thanks.

Things must have been building up for awhile, yes?

You can say that again.

The Advocate observes the activity taking place outside. He remains quiet for a moment. Then abruptly… Take a look at all these people.

Mhm, what about them?

Do you ever wonder about them?

These particular people, or people in general?

In general. We’re all in the same boat, right?

How do you mean?

All obligated to be here, obligated to be free, really. It can be difficult.

Yes it can. And free? Laughs half-heartedly. Like I said, I’m not so sure I am.

No?

No. This life feels more like my taskmaster – like I’ve become its slave – a slave to its demands – if that makes any sense.

Hmm. I’ve heard people suggest that they feel imprisoned by life, but to feel enslaved? That sounds, by far, much worse.

Yeah, it doesn’t feel very good. I don’t really want to be here much of the time.

I can imagine. Pauses, thinking, then… But if life does indeed have such power, such authority over you, enough so to enslave you, then what do you think it wants?

I’m not sure it wants anything. Maybe it’s simply a sadist. Laughs.

Ah, so it takes pleasure in your suffering, in keeping you in bondage?

It certainly feels that way.

Walks halfway across the room, speaking almost inaudibly to himself. If one is in bondage, then one is not free, and to be in bondage is really what it means to be a slave, so a slave is someone who is necessarily not free.

Excuse me?

Oh, sorry. A habit of mine – pondering out loud. Smiles. But… just maybe, whether or not a person considers himself to be a slave depends upon his particular experience of freedom.

Pauses. I wasn’t aware there was more than one way to experience freedom. Don’t we all experience freedom in the same way?

No, not necessarily. When it comes to such an abstract notion, experiences can and do vary widely. It’s sort of like the experience of beauty. Whether or not a thing is beautiful is in the eye of the beholder, as they say.

So you’re saying freedom is like beauty? It’s subjective?

The experience of freedom is subjective, as is all experience. How you experience anything is quite likely different from how I do, if only in the slightest sense.

Okay, so the experience is subjective, but what about freedom itself? Isn’t there some textbook or dictionary definition of freedom that we all tend to agree upon?

Yes, I’m sure there exists an official, published definition of freedom, but the precondition for the validity of any such idea is not that the idea be published, nor even that the idea be accepted by the masses – that particular precondition is met solely by the individual. He alone gets to decide for himself whether an idea fits appropriately into his worldview, for better or worse.

So then what is it to you?

I’m glad that you added the qualification to you. You should understand that these ideas of mine are just that, mine – they need not be yours.

I appreciate that.

But yes, any description of freedom beyond the subjective must take into account the temporal nature of human existence. To exist as a human being is to be necessarily connected to the free flow of time. And just like time, we too are free, obligated to be so, meaning, we are non-fixed, non-determined, and always evolving. These are all ways to describe a free state of being. This is how I define freedom as an objective concept. It is not something that comes and goes – it is always there. It is our experience of it that comes and goes, so to speak. But just because we feel less free at certain times does not mean that freedom is absent. Just as one may experience a work of art to be lacking in beauty does not suggest that beauty does not exist.

I suppose that makes sense. Pauses. But back to what you were saying earlier, that how I experience… corrects herself… how someone experiences freedom determines whether or not he is actually a slave.

One qualification to be a slave is that he experience an absence of freedom, correct?

Yes, of course.

Yet, if a person accepts what I’ve just described, that freedom exists a priori as a condition of our existence, that it is always present regardless of whether or not we experience it, he will not be able to logically make the claim that he is a slave. He may of course still experience its absence, but he will know that to ultimately identify himself as a slave is not congruent with what he believes to be true of human existence – that we are, by obligation, free.

And what good would that do him?

If he does not identify himself as a slave, then he will be free to choose another way of being that would be more congruent with the nature of his existence.

Free to choose? I’m not sure I understand just how it is a slave can choose anything – aren’t my… his choices limited by his circumstances?

Most assuredly so. But only when we consider freedom from an external perspective.

What other way is there?

Well, from an internal perspective. Smiles then winks.

I should have guessed that. Smiles. But, do you mean like freedom of thought? That reminds me of the expression, free your mind.

Ah, yes. Smiles. But for me, the mind is always free, so to command someone to free his mind would be redundant. I would say, instead, become aware that your mind is free and live into that idea. Not quite as catchy, is it? Laughs.

Laughs. It is a tad clunky for an inspirational quote. Maybe simply, wake up, would do. Smiles.

Not bad! But yes, this internal freedom has to do with our freedom to think, to imagine, and to choose. It is the kind of freedom that cannot be taken away or limited by circumstances, that is, of course, excluding the moment of death or states of unconsciousness which preclude the mind of its normal functioning.

Okay. Pauses, thinking. So I understand the freedoms of thought and imagination, that those cannot be bound by any external force, and so I’m free to think and imagine anything I want at any time, but you also mentioned choice. That’s the part I’m having trouble with. Even considering an internal perspective, I still can’t see what I… a slave can choose?

He can choose what to think, what to imagine, and when to do so.

Ah, I kind of answered my own question, didn’t I?

The best way to answer any question, really. Smiles.

So looking at it this way, from an internal perspective, I can see why you wouldn’t consider a slave to be truly bound. I follow that, sure. But how does that help? I mean, so what? He’s free to think and imagine whatever and whenever he wants. This doesn’t change the fact that I’m… he is still bound to his external circumstances.

You’re right. And, he will remain that way as long as he chooses to identify himself as a being wholly determined by those external circumstances.

So what should he choose to identify himself with if not as a slave?

As I said earlier, he can choose to identify with a way of being that is congruent with the free-flowing, evolving nature of human existence.

What do you mean by way of being?

A modus operandi, of course. Smiles.

Ah, you were listening.

Of course. Smiles. But seriously, a way of being is a kind of dynamic stance we assume, regardless of intentionality, that determines the way in which we engage the world – our actions. It often reveals itself as the outward expression of an inward intention to connect with what we value most. It is not a label, or a title, or any kind of role. Those are static determinations brought about by context which may or may not be derivative of one’s way of being. To identify with a way of being, as opposed with a determination, more intimately aligns us with the free nature of human existence, which as I suggested, is necessarily non-fixed, non-determined, and always evolving.

Okay, not so sure I follow that. Laughs. Maybe an example of a way of being, one that a slave could choose, would help.

Sure, hypothetically, he could choose to be someone whose actions reflect the fact that he values the well-being of others. The keywords here are action and value. One’s way of being reveals itself through one’s value-inspired actions.

Okay. Pauses, thinking. I think I got that, but what good would it do him to identify with a way of being such that he values the well-being of others?

He would be engaged in creating meaning in his life whereas nothing meaningful could ever come from his identification as a slave – that act would literally be de-meaning.

And meaning is…

… the sustenance of life. Where there is meaning there is hope, there is possibility. To wholly identify oneself as a determination – a label, title, or role – is to forgo the creation of meaning and besets upon the individual the profound experience of hopelessness. In such a state, one will no longer recognize, or even comprehend, the possibility for change – in this case, our hypothetical slave’s opportunity for liberation.

That’s because I… he will have settled so deeply into his role as a slave?

Yes. There is security in consistency, however false it may truly be.

I’ve heard of cases where victims of ongoing abuse failed to leave their abusers even when the opportunity to do so seemed to present itself over and over to them.

Yes, those are some particularly tragic situations. Such people come to believe, to value, in a twisted sense, the lies their abusers tell them – that they deserve their abuse as a means to atone for the wrongness of their very existence – they have effectively identified with the role of abus-ee. Theirs is a hopeless and meaningless existence.

Thinks to herself for a moment. Okay, but how is a slave, or a person in bondage, supposed to express the idea that he values the well-being of others?

For one, he could help others who find themselves in the same or similar situation.

How?

He could listen to them. He could relate to their suffering by sharing his own. He could simply be with them in a way that does not perpetuate their experience misery.

And this will give my… his life meaning.

Is that a question? Smiles.

Laughs. No. Pauses. A calmness seems to overcome her. I think I understand. She moves to the window. It sounds like what you’re getting at is that I… we shouldn’t accept our labels, titles, or roles – what you’re calling determinations – as who we are. That makes sense when it comes to a label like slave – it’s a negative term. But why not identify with the more positive ones? I mean, don’t you identify with your role as an Advocate?

It’s not so much whether or not I identify with the role of Advocate as much as it is the fact that this particular role accurately reflects my way of being. This is what is significant to me, and I’m very fortunate in this sense.

Yes, you are. It’s hard to find work that reflects what we are passionate about.

Yes, passionate – a very appropriate word to use when speaking of ways of being. Smiles. But, identification with what you call positive roles, just as with any kind of determination for that matter, can lead to undue suffering if we aren’t careful.

How is that?

As I said earlier, roles are fixed, determined, non-free states – we are not. We are obligated to be free whether we participate or not. If an individual chooses to identify with a determination – a label, title, or role of some kind – as opposed with an underlying way of being, one of two possible outcomes, or both, might befall him.

And what are those?

The first is that he may begin to express his being in an ever more increasingly rigid way.

How?

He may come to believe that his way is the right and only way, not merely one of several possible ways. Thus, he will become incapable of entertaining ideas or thoughts that do not rigidly support or reflect his own. Attempts at getting such a person to listen to reason are often fruitless. These individuals cannot, will not, do not know how to, step outside of themselves to see from another’s perspective.

Sounds narcissistic. Actually, it reminds me of people who “push” their religions or political agendas.

Yes, unfortunately many people strongly identify with their religious and/or political determinations rather than with any underlying way of being. They essentially allow their religious views, political affiliations, or other dogmatic stances, to determine who they are, rather than allowing a way of being to inspire this.

So are you saying it’s wrong to follow a religion or affiliate with a particular political party?

No, not at all, as long as we are certain that our values, those that drive our way of being, align adequately with those of the organization with which we choose to affiliate. In other words, we should not have to bend ourselves or alter what or how we believe in order to align more perfectly with the particular way of being of our affiliations. Also, it helps to be aware that organizations are highly prone, if not more so than the individual, of becoming complacent and rigid in their own ways. An organization that will not entertain the idea of change simply because it has operated a certain way for millennia is one to avoid.

That makes sense. Pauses. And what is the other thing you see happen to people who identify with their determinations?

They can become complacent. The complacent individual believes that he has made it, that he’s reached the pinnacle of his life’s endeavors, so he need no longer engage the world, he need no longer participate in his own evolution as a human being.

Well, maybe that’s true for him. What’s wrong with being satisfied with reaching a goal – with taking a break?

There’s not a thing wrong with attaining one’s goals, nor with experiencing the satisfaction that naturally goes along with doing so, so long as we understand that in reaching our goals we are not, somehow, finished, or complete.

Okay, but what would happen if I… he believed he was finished?

The Advocate leans forward in his chair and puts his hands together. So, is that it?

Confused. Is what it?

You think you are finished?

Umm, no, I wasn’t speaking of myself…

With the passing of time, you will come to experience yourself as less and less effective. You will no longer actively participate in your life, nor engage the world as you once had – instead, you will believe you have stopped the progression of time, but really you have only given up the reins to become its passenger. From that vantage, you will observe the world as it seems to pass you by, people you once knew moving on, carrying on, growing, leaving you behind while you sit still, stagnate, and drown in a sea of your own self-imposed self-loathing. You will wonder why you must suffer so – you will castigate the universe for the fact that you never had your 15 minutes. You will blame everyone and every circumstance for your suffering. You will become bitter. You will come to experience a deep passivity, a powerlessness beyond measure, a sense that you are no longer the authority over your own life, but its slave.

Remains quiet. Puts a hand to her mouth. Her eyes welling up, then… How do you know all of this?

Smiles gently. Because you live, and you breathe.

She rises uneasily and moves to the window.

The Advocate remains seated, merely observing, allowing the moment to unfold.

She watches the activity outside. Notices a handsome young man sitting alone beneath a chestnut tree. He seems to be deep in thought, writing in a journal of some kind. She watches him for no particular reason as he continues to think, to write. Soon, a single tear is loosed upon her cheek. She turns to the Advocate and stares at him for a moment… I can’t do this anymore. It’s become pointless, and it’s making me sick. She nearly falls to her knees, but the Advocate catches her and helps her regain her balance, then… This decision, I can’t… It would be my end. But I can’t go on this way. I’m so alone. Please help me.

The Advocate holds her hands in his own and simply smiles. He brushes a lock of hair from her face. I’m right here. Raises her chin gently until she meets his gaze, then… You are the Authority. You always have been.

But I feel so powerless. What kind of Authority could ever feel so inept, ineffective, and incapable of speaking her mind?

Well, let’s put it this way, the Authority who claims to have never felt such things… is no Authority.

But I feel this way all the time!

So it sounds then that maybe change is needed. That pill …points to the bottle… does not promise change. Its promise is one of continued enslavement. I have a feeling you see that now, yes?

So it can’t make this decision for me?

Taking a pill, not taking a pill… this decision of yours will be made regardless, yes? You said it yourself, these things tend to work themselves out whether or not you participate. Pauses. You aren’t really here to escape making a decision.

What do you mean?

You came here to escape responsibility for the outcome of the decision you think the pill can make for you. If people aren’t happy with the decision, blame the pill, right? Plausible deniability? But now, Authority, you have an opportunity before you, one that promises true liberation, not a momentary escape.

How?

Smiles, does not respond.

Thinks. But I don’t know which way of being I would choose.

That you would consider choosing at all is a good sign.

Of what?

That you are free, not a slave – that you are the Authority.

Half smiles, wiping her eyes. I’m scared.

I would expect no less an honest statement from a true Authority. A strong sign that you are going to be alright. Smiles.

You make it sound so simple.

Then allow me to apologize. This is no simple undertaking. We are talking about changing your life. Let no one ever convince you that they have a quick, one-size-fits-all fix for such a thing. Any plan for change must take your unique, individual experience of the world into account. Hence, I’ll not simply tell you to choose a way of being and have you be on your way. I would be doing you violence, and that is not my way.

But you offer a pill that promises a quick-fix.

Yes, I do offer.

Thinks. Hmm. But you don’t ever prescribe.

Is that a question?

No. Pauses. So, that Attendant friend of mine? The black pill he spoke of? He never…

Shakes his head. Even if there were such a thing…

No, I had a feeling it was too good to be true when I first decided to come here.

So then why did you come?

I needed… I don’t know, I guess I needed… this. Whatever this is, or was.

It was what you needed, that’s all.

So what do I do now?

You begin.

Begin?

Yes, you begin to nurture that spark of freedom growing inside you …gently taps her chest… by holding on to the idea that you are not a slave, that to be a slave is an impossibility. You begin to wonder. You wonder about a new way of being, one that will house that spark so that it can become the flame that ignites your passion, that drives your re-engagement with the world, that gives birth to the Authority you are, that you always have been. It’s time to become reacquainted with her, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, please yes. She smiles through tears she cannot hold back. But I’ll need help. This is all new to me.

Yes, you will indeed need help. For now you have my attention, but soon you will not need it. I think you’ll be surprised to find how people will be drawn to you once you start to re-engage the world. And those friends, the ones you left behind, I have a feeling, will be more than willing, even excited, to re-engage with you.

How can you be so sure?

Because you live, and you breathe, Authority.


If you enjoyed this, you might also like The Advocate and the Attendant, the first dialogue of the Advocate Dialogues.

Be not

good
bad
nor mediocre

gay
straight
nor any other

a liberal
conservative
nor moderate,
brother

sister
wife
husband
mother

be not labeled
nor determined
ever

for,

you are no thing
you are nothing
you are
you,
aren’t you?

Nietzsche on the “right” way

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” 

Friedrich Nietzsche


If more of us were to adopt this idea, think of how much more willing we would be to listen to one another, to actually entertain those ideas not our own.