Sprague Theobald crossed the Northwest Passage with his children. Yet his biggest fear still comes from the two critics–one on each shoulder.
After six longs years of working on a documentary and companion book about the five month long, history-making trip that I did with my kids to and through the Arctic’s infamous Northwest Passage ( “The Other Side of The Ice”), both book and documentary were released to the public last spring. Although during the trip we faced adversity and potential of death in all manner of form; stuck in crushing ice floes for a few days, polar bears, Arctic storms, personality clashes and meltdowns, nothing prepared me for the swift and furious industry reaction to both offerings; the critics hated both book and film. Kirkus reviews slammed the book while various film critics, New York Times, Village Voice, Variety, found, in my very subjective and overly-sensitive mind, far too many unnecessarily harsh words to best express their disdain and contempt for not only the film but the trip itself. If I remember correctly, I think the day after the reviews of the film came out I retreated to my bedroom leaving strict instructions to “slide all meals under the door” and remove anything from my apartment that was sharper then a crayon.
But, as we’ve been told time and time again, and, time and time again refuse to believe, “this too shall pass”… and indeed it did. The book became a Best Seller on two of Amazon’s best selling lists, set the record on Amazon for most free downloads in a day (I was told the number was 26,000) and met with wonderful reception and praise from all corners of the reading market. The documentary just won an Emmy for “Outstanding Achievement In Documentary—Topical”. I’m blessed beyond measure.
Now, I said the above not for self-promotion (perhaps a tad) and braggadocio (maybe yet another tad) but to share something that I, and I’m sure we all suffer from; Ourselves. Looking back at the less than glorious debut of both book and film I so clearly see that yet once again I fell victim to the nagging, persistent, irrelevant and self-sabotaging negative voices that have run rampant through my experience since I was a kid. In this instance they found their strength and determination in the critic’s words.
Two of these voices are at the top of my list of “Usual Suspects”; enter Murry and Bob, the two voices that always speak the loudest… if I let them: These two characters (AKA, my ego run-rampant) have manifested themselves in my life in all manner of personalities and guises, none being more evident and persistent than the little angel, Murry, who sits squarely on my right shoulder and Bob, the little devil who hangs out on my left. Through the years I’ve gotten to know these characters on intimate terms, for they have supplied me with many self-defeating reactions I’ve had to almost every key situation. Get an “A” on a test in school? Devil Bob tells me that there was most probably a mistake in the correction process and any day I’ll hear that, that “A” was actually an “F”. Win $100 in a local Lottery? Angel Murry suggests (in his own special nagging-angel way) that if I was truly a good person I’d give that $100 to those far less fortunate than I and if I didn’t, I wasn’t a worthy recipient of the wins in the first place. On and on these two would chatter throughout the years, pushing and pulling, each in their own charming way, taking me a bit farther away from the voice I should have been listening to all along, “Me”.
It was through lots of counseling and honest self-reflection that I realized that despite these two guys, if I truly listened and trusted my own, seldom-acted upon inner voice, that that was the voice that would guide, comfort, instruct and appropriately praise. It’s that voice deep down inside that speaks only when life is still and my mind is blissfully blank, that was the voice that could always be trusted. No more so was this lesson driven home than my reaction and thoughts regarding the current day critic’s evaluation of my book and film. Upon completion of both I knew that they were both good, I was confident that they would both find an appreciative audience. But it was the critics, in the guise of Murry and Bob, that convinced me otherwise.
Once I had sulked enough and decided to brave it and come out of my bedroom and face the world again, I realized that I had let the media critic’s uniformed voices (one critic referred to a scene in the film in which a Polar bear was stalking a walrus with the intent to kill, as “the usual shot of a polar bear romping”) and opinions inflate Murry and Bob and in turn, I let them do their usual job of telling me who I was and what my efforts were worth; zip, nada, nothing. I had dropped my guard for a moment and those guys spoke right up. Constant vigilance with these two. You don’t want to be around when life is slow and they get to fighting.
I think that false-beliefs, self-doubting are so common to us all. We all fall victim to words which have no place in our experience. I don’t think I’ve met another man, woman or child who doesn’t have their own version of Murry and Bob. But I have also been very fortunate to meet a few who simply regard these hangers-on as the excess baggage they are, dismiss them with a swat as they would a pesky, fat fly.
As humans, each one of us falls victim to these voices who, for the most part, are simply serving their own agendas. Bob and Murry—ego—want to be heard so badly, they’ll stop at nothing. I’ve found that they’ll go to most any length to hop up off my shoulder and whisper less-than-sweet nothings into my ear. And brother, do they hate being ignored! They could care less about the outcome or aftermath of their words, just as long as they’re heard. But once I learned and felt that the true words of “Me” are the ones to listen to and believe in, I felt Bob and Murry’s voices became a bit more quiet, a bit more distant. It was after I left my self-exile in my bedroom and only after getting down, dirty and honest with myself that I heard “Me” telling me in gentle but very firm words that the voices of these film and book critics were no more pertinent than my quasi friend’s Bob and Murry. That these critics were like both my angel and devil, and they too only wanted to be heard. That I was giving them far too much power. For I was the one who had the experience of completing a trip through the Arctic that hundreds had died trying to do, and yet I had let these folks, again with the help of my friendly angel and devil, tell me who I was. It was nothing against these men, for they were only doing what they get paid to do, criticize, but deep down inside I knew the difference between who they were and who I was.
Because of Murry and Bob I had lost fact of the big picture, that my family and I did something remarkable that summer, something that changed all of lives. One of my film critics, on the other hand, I later found out three days, watched my documentary on his laptop over the course of three days while at work.
And as the timing of these things always and curiously works out, once I came to peace with the concept that those critics, those authority figures (Authority; there’s a whole other subject) and all that I projected onto them, had activated my two not-so-silent, but very “dark passengers” that I came across a writing that is attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, a man whose passions, self-beliefs and inner strengths need, as they say, no introduction:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Gentlemen, as I try to remind myself time after time, we should always take a minute to cheer who we truly are and not believe the words of relative strangers who try to tell us who we are or should be. We should try to listen very closely to the feedback and observations we get from those we trust and admire and take a minute to see if you can smell any hidden agendas or non-truths from those whom we don’t, in my case from Bob and Murry. When someone tells me that I’m less-than-good, my critical voice keys into this and I’m off to the races. Yet deep down inside I know it not to be true. And that’s who I need to connect with, that voice. It only takes being vigilant and honest. I have to try and remember that it’s only my ego who’s trying to convince me that’s it’s impossible to do, to connect.
We as fallible humans will always have issues to deal with, acts to be responsible for, wrong decisions to come to terms with, but it’s ours to take the time and sit peacefully, if not simply for a few minute’s, and try to listen to our own, agenda-free voices of truth… and to give ourselves a break! It’s ours to never forget that “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”.