A Heavy Responsibility

We are all familiar that a criticism is always more brutal when first accompanied by a compliment. The compliment sets a pattern, the violation of which produces surprise and thus more profoundly disturbs the mind, as one not only must contend with the blow of a criticism, but also with feelings of deficiency for not knowing his friends from his enemies well enough to see the blow coming. Caught flatfooted, one is much less likely to have a response handy and must thus further suffer feelings of deficiency for being stymied and failing to defend oneself. This commingling of opposites is often utilized by the clever and unscrupulous. As Samuel Johnson asserts, “as it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more good than evil.”  Nowhere is this more true than in friendship. We usually keep friends who we hold in high esteem and who often do good by us. We usually think of the good that we do for others, and the respect that we have earned in their estimation, as somehow cumulative, such that it would build up as a buffer, as a measure of slack that we have secured against any potential transgressions. However, the very opposite is often true in practice. The amount of slack we have is proportionate to the other person’s expectations, making the burden of a friendship based on an unbroken chain of good deeds and mutual esteem-building events exponentially greater than the burden of a less reliable, less respectful friendship.  The more respect we gain with our friends, the more care we must take with any critique of their lives. Similarly, a respected college professor must be more careful of the criticisms he levels at students in class than do the other students, as his opinions carry more weight and thus more sting. Is it any wonder that people are so often flaky, undependable, a bit harsh, and so forth? Perhaps the responsibility of living up to one’s moral and personal potential is too much to bear! How often do we actually hamstring ourselves with a potential friend or lover out of some notion that we are not worthy, that we cannot live up to the responsibility endemic to the character we are then playing? If we were more honest with ourselves we would have to admit that this is not more responsibility than we can bear, but rather more than we care to. It is so much easier to set the bar far lower and reap the rewards of constantly offering pleasant surprises. Perhaps, we reason, it is even better for the recipient, for who doesn’t enjoy good surprises more than consistent pleasures? While that rhetorical question sinks in, let me conclude by reminding the reader to take his emotional reactions with a grain of salt, to remember all of the compliments that preceeded any criticism, and to give our friends and family the slack that they have earned instead of the inversely proportionate slack that expectation might have us grant them.

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