The monks praised a brother to Abba Antony. But Antony went to him and tested whether he could endure abuse. And when he perceived that he could not bear it, he said: “You are like a house with a highly decorated facade, where burglars have stolen all the furniture out of the back door.”
While not all rejection comes with whatever “abuse” St. Antony gave to the brother in this story, it can feel like abuse even when given in a spirit of love. The problem is the same: an easily bruised ego or “thin skin” combined with misplaced hope in ourselves. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there, even the most praised among us.
For example, a guy has a crush on a girl, takes a risk and is rejected. He goes from crushing to crushed in an instant, passes through a sorry phase of listening exclusively to emo rock, and eventually emerges again after far too much self-pity.
Or a student studies and researches and writes a paper, thinking that it is her best work to date. But her new professor has different expectations than she realized: C-. Rejected. So she drops the class.
Or an artist works for months to build up a portfolio and finally takes a risk to have a show, and nothing sells; no one shows up—he gets rejected. He vows to never take a risk again and instead blogs about how the average plebeian just doesn’t “get” art in general.
Or an athlete trains for an event and her team loses at the last minute. She protests to the referees, refuses to shake hands with her opponents, and storms into the locker room. Rejected.
You get the picture. There is a cycle to rejection: anxiety over what others will think, taking a risk anyway, and getting negative feedback. How we react to such circumstances, despite our protests to the contrary, often has more to do with our own character than any true injustice that we have suffered.
The problem is a bundle of several passions. We misplace our hope in ourselves; we step out in what we believe to be courage; and then, when things do not go as we desired, we grieve. In some cases, we then take on another passion: fear. We allow our future actions to be ruled by a fear of rejection and neglect to take such risks again.
I am assistant editor of an academic journal. Occasionally, I have the job of notifying an author that his/her submission has been rejected. It’s not something that I take pleasure in (though I am glad to stop bad scholarship from being published). Nevertheless, I know that it is a rare person who would not be disheartened.
Indeed, I also write on a more professional level than this blog. And sometimes my submissions are rejected too. I keep track of all my submissions on my laptop. I have separate folders for drafts, unpublished but submitted, awaiting publication, and published. Oh yeah, and rejected—that folder probably isn’t up to date….
More to the point of this story, even things I publish (often online) are open to criticism. How well do I respond? Do I always do so in charity? Do I know when silence is wiser than speech?
Stories like this from the desert fathers have a way of calming me down when I’m criticized or rejected. I think even the most “thick skinned” person likely needs a reminder every now and then about what truly matters. St. Antony does a great service for this brother. If he had not criticized him, that brother may have continued to be puffed up by the praise that he received. His facade may have continued to be decorated in the most elaborate way, while all his furniture—all the stuff on the inside—is left vulnerable by a “back door” that is wide open: his sensitive ego.
For St. Antony a better tell of a person’s true character is how well one bears criticism rather than how much praise one receives from others. From this perspective our typical instincts are turned on their heads. Praise is not necessarily good; it can be a temptation to pride. Criticism is not always bad; it can be an invitation to humility. The trick, I suppose, is to learn how to spend less time seeking decoration for the exterior of our homes and more time securing the treasures within. Locking down the “back door” (our egos) is far more important than whatever decorations for the front (praises) we may receive.
Lord have mercy that I beware the dangers of praise that can lead to an inflated ego and misplaced grief. And Lord have mercy that I see the opportunity for virtue—and thus true joy—in every word of criticism.
Even slander ought to sound sweet to our ears, and we should regard rejection as an opportunity for resurrection. If our hope is founded in Jesus Christ rather than ourselves, then such resurrections of our will to risk rejection ought to be the norm. After all, he’s in the business, last I checked.