I was thinking about E. Oaks’ comments in General Conference about criticism. Talking about things that prevent us from benefiting from the gospel, he said:
Another potential destroyer of spiritual roots—accelerated by current technology but not unique to it—is the keyhole view of the gospel or the Church. This limited view focuses on a particular doctrine or practice or perceived deficiency in a leader and ignores the grand panorama of the gospel plan and the personal and communal fruits of its harvest.
This is an update to something he said on PBS’s show The Mormons, a statement for which he was widely criticized:
It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.
In a talk in 1987, he elaborated on this same idea much more fully in an Ensign article here. I’ve been thinking about the similarity between church leaders and what it is like working out with our personal trainer. My husband and I have been working out with a succession of personal trainers for a little over a year. We just recently started again with a new trainer we are just getting to know. Hopefully you can see some of the parallels.
We started working out with a trainer for a variety of reasons: boredom (we had a lot of free time on our hands when we started), fear of death and aging, a desire to feel better, and the awareness that working out alone was yielding parlous results. I was also recovering from having fallen off a horse at the time, and my back was jacked up. Usually, a person at the gym generally comes up to you and asks about your fitness goals, and then they set you up (for a nominal fee each session) with a personal trainer to motivate you to achieve those goals. This is similar to the reasons we either join the church or engage more fully with it. To some extent, our assessment of the outcome is related to whatever prompted us to join in the first place.
These are the routine thoughts I have when I work out with my new personal trainer:
- He has a crazy forced laugh like Caesar Flickerman, the blue-haired host in the Hunger Games trilogy. 
- He isn’t giving me full credit for all my work. Sometimes his count is off. I’ve done four reps, and he says “three . . .” Grrr.
- Easy for him to say. He has it easy. He’s young and hasn’t given birth to three children or lived in Asia being force-fed noodles and rice.
- My body just doesn’t work that way. What he’s asking me to do is literally impossible for my body type.
- I’m not going to focus my entire life on this. He’s crazy if he thinks I’m going to spend every single day in the gym. I have other things going on in my life.
Recapping, my criticism falls into these buckets. :
- Perceived slights & wrongs
- Personal circumstances
People in leadership wear big boy and big girl underpants and don’t need to be protected from criticism. They lead a worldwide organization. That’s why they are in the position they are in. E. Oaks also stated this in his 1987 Ensign article, although this bears repeating for two reasons. First, those who claimed E. Oaks said this because of arrogance and a belief that leaders should not be questioned are implying (at least in part) that leaders can’t take the heat and should get out of the kitchen. Second, those who can’t stand for leaders to be criticized often try to protect them, as if leaders need members to act as human shields for them. In part, it is a sign of respect to criticize. We criticize someone because we are engaging with their ideas and taking them seriously.
Ultimately, though criticism isn’t really about them. Criticism is about us. If it were only about them, we would just ignore them. Criticism is the point at which another’s ideas clash with ours.
Recently, we were telling a funny story about someone we know. My daughter said, “I used to look up to [that person].” I said, “You should look up to her. She’s got a lot of admirable qualities.” While the story we were telling was typical of this person, it showcased one of her ridiculous qualities. Each of us is a mix of good qualities and the absurd, although many people fail to realize this. We all make judgments about the people around us, whom to trust, whom we should fear, who is a good role model, etc. We listen to all the information (or stories) we have about a person. As we get older, we know a lot more stories about these people.
Children are more vulnerable to negative information because they have fewer stories. When we have fewer stories, the outlying stories are more powerful and we may mistake them for typical. There was an interesting TED talk about the problem of the “single story.” She shares the example of a man who had seen Christian Bale’s movie American Psycho, and this was really the only story he knew about Americans, so he thought this was more typical behavior than it is.
Listen to your inner monologue for the 5 types of criticism I outlined, and you’ll see why criticism is all about us:
Personality quirks. We often find personality traits endearing or annoying for subconscious reasons that have nothing to do with the person and are related to memories or insecurities. While it’s important to give people a pass, I’ve also found that once you’ve accurate described personality flaws, it’s impossible to unsee them. For example, I can’t hear E. Perry talk without “hankering for a hunk of cheese,” although Schoolhouse Rock is a positive association for me. I can’t unhear that Caesar Flickerman laugh either.
Perceived slights & wrongs are usually accidental on the part of the person doing them. Now, if I have a personal trainer who always miscounts my reps in my favor, I’m going to be more likely to like that person than one who always undercounts my work. I should be mature enough to realize that errors in my favor vs. errors “against” me are still both errors. My workout is what it is. If my trainer demotivates me with constant mistakes that are out of my favor, I should probably find a new personal trainer. But if I’m getting off light because of counting errors in my favor, I’m also not going to get the results I want.
Privilege. It’s true that I need to adjust some of what my personal trainer says for his awareness of what it’s like to be in my shoes. If he’s knowledgeable about nutrition and aging and women, I may get more value from what he’s saying. But if not, I’ll have to ignore some of the things he gets wrong. Either way, I shouldn’t immediately dismiss all he says, just realize that he may not truly empathize with the struggles of someone who isn’t a twenty something male. If he’s over the top wrong in the type of advice he’s giving or causing me injury based on wrong assumptions, I should probably get a new personal trainer.
Personal circumstances. Let’s be honest. Part of this is me making excuses, and part of it is legit. There are literally some types of exercise that just don’t work as well for some body types, and every body type differs in what it needs. Our frames, our muscles, our metabolisms, all of these are factors. If we have an injury, we have to compensate for that. If we have short or long legs, a weak or strong core, neck or back pain, all of these are going to impact how effective various exercises are. But sometimes I just need to make a slight adjustment or try a different machine or a different exercise to get the result I need.
Priorities. OK, he’s a personal trainer whereas I have a company to run, kids to raise, and an ever-growing Netflix queue to work through.  When he implies I’m going to be at the gym every day for an hour, well, obviously I know that’s completely impractical. It being the center of his life is because he’s a personal trainer is fine, but I’ve got to decide how much time this is really worth to me. I can derive benefit from it, but I have to decide how to integrate workouts into my overall life and still pay the bills, get kids to school, and build a business. It’s up to me to determine what I want to get from my workouts. Do I want to be more flexible, in better cardiovascular shape? Do I want to lose weight or gain muscle? Do I want to be a runway model?  He can’t decide what success looks like. Only I can.
So I can appreciate E. Oaks’ advice in the most recent General Conference:
we must be moderate and measured in criticism and seek always for the broader view of the majestic work of God.
In his 1987 Ensign article, E. Oaks suggested 5 alternatives to criticizing leaders: 1) overlook the flaw, humbly acknowledging our own flaws 2) reserve judgment and postpone action (is there something of merit that we aren’t yet seeing?), 3) take up our differences privately with that leader (obviously not terribly easy to do with apostles or GAs in a church this large), 4) go over their head to another leader (works for local leaders), 5) go over their head to God or pray, but also pray to understand if we are the one in error.
- Have you ever experienced the problem of only knowing “one story” about a person or group of people? How does our limited interaction with high level church leaders help and hinder our perceptions of their flaws?
- Where does engaging with ideas end and undue criticism begin? What criticism is “moderate and measured” and when does it go too far?
- How does clarifying your own goals and expectations alter the tendency to be critical of leaders?
- Does the analogy of a personal trainer work for you? Why or why not?
- Do these pants make me look fat?
 My last trainer had no sense of humor whatsoever and frequently told the same pointless stories, and the one before that often just seemed distracted and not that committed. It’s always something.
 The one I liked best? The one whose count was mostly accurate, but occasionally in my favor. Which is how I like my apostles. Or how I perceive the apostles I like.
 I don’t know how they all came up as “P” words, but by the 3rd “P” word, I was committed to make it work.
 And apparently blog posts to write!
 Shaddap. I know the boat has sailed on that one.