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Critical Condition (Part I)

In the academic world, critical thinking is a good thing.  I was taught to evaluate a text with a critical eye, looking for errors in logic, unreliable narrators, clues about a character’s hidden motives.  I teach my students to do the same, and I look at their work with an equally critical eye (often to their dismay).  When asked to explain how an English degree is relevant in modern society, we instructors inevitably mention that our students graduate with universally-applicable communication and critical thinking skills.  Rightly so.
But I’m concerned here with a different kind of critical thinking, the kind that is ugly and soul-destroying.  The kind that creates barriers between people.  The kind I regularly engage in, even though I don’t want to.  I’ve always been partly aware of the running commentary in the back of my head when I’m in public: What’s she wearing that for?  He’s the most boring speaker I’ve ever heard.  She’s a nasty piece of work.   He’s not very smart.  Wow, what an ugly baby!  You get the idea.
You’ve probably also met a few of those people whose critical running commentary doesn’t stay in their heads but is shared with everyone who will listen.  People who spread poison everywhere they go.  People who make me want to draw myself up and say primly, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  (Yes, I enjoy judging judgmental people too.  Nobody is safe!)
I don’t want to become one of those people.  Here’s a scary thought: maybe I am already one of those people and don’t know it.  The other day I decided to take action to avoid (or stop) being one of those people.  I was in a restaurant having dinner with my husband, and I told him I was going to try an experiment on myself to see how long I could last without thinking or saying anything critical about another person.  He kindly did his best not to look skeptical.  I checked my watch and started to eat, already feeling morally superior to those poor sods who don’t even know they’re too critical.
I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Maybe I thought if I really, really tried not to be judgmental, I could stop through sheer force of will.  Maybe I thought I could make it through the rest of the day without a critical thought because I wouldn’t be spending time with anyone but my husband.
Here’s what happened.  Twenty minutes later I became aware of a very loud man a couple of tables away.  He was making friendly small talk with the waitress, but he had a booming voice.  (I didn’t see his shoes, but I imagine they must have looked something like these: large and clunky and a bit dirty.) I opened my mouth to tell my husband, “That man is really obnoxious” but then froze in horror.
Seriously, twenty minutes?  That’s the best I could do?
I know I need to try the experiment again, but I’m still feeling discouraged by my poor performance on the first one.  After all, I was trying not to be critical.  How often must I be thinking critical thoughts when I’m not paying attention?  Well-meaning friends have told me, “at least you’re aware of the problem,” but I don’t feel comforted.   Nevertheless, I’m glad I conducted the experiment because it’s partly what sparked this year-long quest to understand people.  I’m not usually critical of the people I understand, and I also find it easier to forgive people when I understand their motives.
One thing I won’t be doing is trying the experiment while driving.  Have you ever felt like you’re the only good driver in a city full of bad ones?  Me too.
We’re wrong.

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