Deserved Praise

Posted on May 30, 2010


Have you ever been around someone who gets on your very last nerve, someone who, with only the slightest encouragement, turns into something completely intolerable? We do our best to give them a wide berth, these needy, grating people, but they continue to show up in our lives with their foibles and sharp edges and unfinished parts. We are not dark, demanding people, and we realize they have their good points. But the last thing, the absolute LAST thing we must do, is comment on these brief respites of peace, because then they will become IMPOSSIBLE.

I’m not unsympathetic to how much this could drive someone crazy, but this one seldom troubles me. It’s probably because this was who I was to my father, so I’ve had the extended experience from the other side, and the grass isn’t greener over that fence. But I really do sympathize. And it’s now the way some people feel about him, so I feel a poignant, strange connection to him over it.

A few months ago I sat in a small room with young women and taught a lesson on the safety nets of life … family, friends, congregation, God. We talked about accessing our safety nets, and being part of nets for others. I looked into the eyes of someone who finds me deeply annoying, and said, “What would you see in someone, if for one minute you could see past the things about them that annoy you? What would you then be willing to do for them?”

For the briefest second, there was an aha moment in her eyes. My goal was not to have her see me any differently, because I’m past losing sleep over others’ opinions, but to see someone less secure differently. And certainly, it didn’t open any great thoroughfares between us. But the interaction has made me think about my own words very often.

A friend who worked in our church’s education system with young people until his untimely death at 35, once commented that at the retreats our youth attend and at which young married couples serve as leaders and chaperones, he spent more time holding the hands of the couples than the kids. He came away from that experience determined to be, as he coined the term, a “minimum maintenance Mormon,” someone who can give freely to others without expecting an immediate return on investment.

I find that I have to get past me to see anyone else. Not a great revelation, that, but by extension, my irritation is me. It’s a truism of therapy that what annoys us in others is a reflection of something within us about which, at least some part of us, is concerned. And I certainly can’t be aware of anyone else’s needs if I’m busy saying, “Excuse me, I have a need … hel-lo ….”

For me, the antidote to “hel-lo … I’m here …” is praise. It takes time to make praise meaningful and honest, to know someone well enough to perceive their strengths and tell them why I appreciate them. It’s time that allows this powerful killer cell to eliminate the virus in my immune system and it makes me strong. That’s just me. Maybe living with someone who didn’t dare encourage me and who felt the need to constantly guard against the excesses of my character built in me the unshakable belief that you can’t overdo deserved praise, and that obnoxious people are probably just scared that they really are fools. And this is not to imply that I’m good at it, because there are those around me who certainly do not think I do it enough.

I don’t know that I think too much about being a MMM anymore; I tend to think in terms of cups. In Avatar, the shaman leader says quietly: It is hard to fill a cup that is already full. We tend to have this belief that we need to be full to be useful, but to be full implies that we have nothing else to receive. I sometimes have responsibility for people who are not so much full, but have their hands over their cups. It’s sad, not because I have such wonderful things that I want to pour in, but because people keep giving wonderful things to me, and if I were too full to receive, I would miss out on them.

A friend recorded a beautiful ballad, my favorite form, with the following refrain: “Tomorrow’s another day, and I’m thirsty anyway … so bring on the rain.” It made me think of walking around with a hand over my cup, … or not. Of embracing my part fullness because that’s an opportunity. Of getting past me to see and to be – what? a linked piece of a safety net? Camilla Kimball once said, “Never suppress a generous thought” and I’ve often thought, why not just let it keep on going out your mouth? What would the world be like with generous things regularly pouring out of people’s mouths?

I’m thirsty, but I’m okay. There’s room in my cup, but I don’t need you to put anything there that diminishes you. There’s plenty in here for me to pour out, if you find that you’re thirsty too. No worries, because it rains.

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