the invitation to critique

A while back, I wrote this:

To make promises, to stand by one’s words, to be answerable for them, is to open oneself to blame. That’s legitimately frightening. But if the cost is high, so is the benefit: To be answerable for one’s words is to escape the ineffectual, and to find “the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person.” To move from the linguistically and morally empty world of Projection — in which you can blithely forecast the destruction of whole fields of human activity and the hopes they hold — to the meaning-saturated world of Promise is to risk much. But if Bakhtin is right, you’re betting on the integrity of your own personhood; and if Berry is right, you’re binding yourself to someone else’s future. The promise for which you are truly answerable is a bet on mutuality. 

I’m casting my mind back to this because of some thoughts that keep rising up in the aftermath of my recent Laity Lodge retreat with Sara Hendren

One of the points Sara emphasized in her talks was how Olin College of Engineering, where she teaches, spends a lot of time teaching its students the practice of prototyping. As Sara defines and explains that practice, it really does look to me like a “bet on mutuality,” in this sense: To build a prototype and expose it to critique is to make yourself very vulnerable. (Sara mentioned an exercise Olin does in which it has its students build games, and then invites fourth-graders in to judge the games. “Is this fun?” She said that when those terrifying 10-year-olds arrive, some of her students’ hands are shaking.) But you invite people in because you know that you can’t do the thing you want to do without their honest response.

The form this particular bet on mutuality takes could be called a hopeful invitation to a constructive feedback loop. That is, you hope that your critics will give responses that will genuinely help you improve your prototype; and they hope that you will try to improve your project in ways that take their critique seriously. And so on, iteration by iteration. Sara has written of critique and repair, and I have written of invitation and repair, but look what we have here: the invitation to critique as a first step in the process of repair. 

An obvious point, now that I think about it, but then, I often take some time to achieve the obvious. 

When this thought came to me, I realized that I had dealt with it, implicitly, in one of my own talks at Laity. I had contrasted Bob Davey — a man who desperately wanted to restore an old church in Norfolk, England — with Justo Martinez — a man who wanted to build a new church near Madrid, Spain. Brother Justo strove for decades not just to build the church, but also to do it alone — he neither sought nor welcomed assistance of any kind, and often claimed to have achieved by himself tasks that he simply couldn’t have achieved without help. He treated others as impediments and threats. By contrast, Davey worked very hard on restoring that little Norfolk church, but he also sought help of every kind along the way. He gave up complete control of the project in order to draw friends and strangers into his endeavor. His motto seems to have been that great phrase from Wordsworth: “what we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” He made a bet on mutuality.

That surely meant having to hear other people tell him “You’re doing it wrong” — something Justo, it seems, couldn’t bear to hear. But if we want to repair the world, or any part of our little corner of it, we’ve got not just to accept but invite that possibility. We have to discipline ourselves to welcome it. And we have to encourage those others to stick with us through multiple iterations of whatever we’re prototyping. 

What this might look like through my kind of work … well, I’m just beginning to figure that out. But it’s got to start with doing hard things with friends