30 January 2013

Thoughts on Finding Fault

It's easy to find fault in things--far too easy for most of us. Somehow, the flaws are far more easy to see than the bigger picture, than the amount of work and thought and preparation have gone into a particular piece of work. Think about it--if someone just painted his or her house and missed a spot, what's the first thing we see? If someone just cooked us dinner and used a bit too much salt, what's the first thing we notice when we put the food into our mouths?

And if we do notice the bare spot on the house, aren't we doing the person a favor by pointing it out? And if the food's too salty we may not be able to eat it, so we'll definitely need to explain why.

Many of us carry this tendency to extremes, though. Many people feel that they need to tell everyone about every little fault that they find in every situation. They feel that they're doing people favors by pointing out what they see as flaws and problems, even though they may not be in a position in which people expect them to find mistakes. And when they do so, they risk hurting people greatly.

When a kid shows us a piece of artwork, for example, does it truly matter if the flower is taller than the tree? What possible purpose can it serve to point out what we see as a flaw when the picture already is finished? We really need to consider the effect of the criticism on the artist before we look for the problems. Is encouragement called for, or evaluation? We don't have to be teaching at every moment of our lives--we don't have to be finding things that need to be "fixed" all the time.

As a college English teacher, I find that very few people other than my students ever want me to read stuff that they write. There's a very simple reason for this, too--in their experience, they've found that English teachers look for the flaws and point them out, and they simply don't want to put themselves up for that kind of criticism. I learned this early and I don't point out things like misspellings or grammatical errors unless someone wants me to do so, but that doesn't usually help--once someone finds out what I do for a living, they want to avoid having someone else find fault in their work.

When we find fault in something that someone else has done, we're very often adding a negative element to our relationship with that person. We're defining limits of trust and sharing--if I know that someone is going to find fault with everything that I do, I will not share with that person unless I'm truly seeking criticism. As fewer people are willing to share with us, we lose much of the richness that comes from and through that sharing, and we become more isolated, less integrated. The loss of the sharing of others is one of the greatest losses we can cause ourselves, and it may even reach a point at which people just don't want to be around us at all.

There are, of course, times when fault-finding is appropriate. If a movie is simply awful, there's nothing wrong with saying so. After all, movies have been put out in the public eye, and criticism is expected. But if we take it too far and find things to criticize in every movie we see, we may find people trying to avoid us in the future. If a song is just awful, what's wrong with saying so? We just have to be careful not to alienate friends or loved ones who might like the song.

Fault-finding and criticizing, no matter what our intentions, tend to drive wedges between us and other people. A person who finds fault in everything is a person to be avoided, when all is said and done, and who among us wants other people to avoid us whenever they can?

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