On Affirmation and Praise

LTC-brojohn-092214

Look therefore to how you hear! Whoever has will receive. Whoever does not have will be deprived even of what one thinks one has.
Luke 8: 18

I led a worldly life from the age of fourteen or fifteen until the age of nineteen when, after powerfully being put in my place, I turned toward God, fell in love, and put myself in HIs service.
Autobiography of T. J. Ryken

Affirm your brothers and sisters in their gifts,
for by doing so you enable them to realize the gifts that God has given them
for service.

In turn,
allow them to affirm you
and call you forth
to even greater service of God.
Fundamental Principles

The saying of Jesus in Luke 8:18 is comparable to the version of Mark 25, with one small but significant exception. In Mark, we read: “from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Luke changes the nature of the dispossession from loss of an actual possession to loss of an illusory one: “even what one thinks one has.” This small difference is a great help in understanding what is quite a difficult saying of Jesus. The one who knows what (s)he has, that is who is grateful for the actual life that is being given, will experience receiving more and more of the giftedness of that life. On the other hand, the one who lives a self-created life and, thus, in self-delusion will eventually lose what (s)he thinks she has.

In the New York Times of September 21, 2014, there is an excerpt from the autobiography of the columnist Charles Blow. In that excerpt he writes:

Daring to step into oneself is the bravest, strangest, most natural, most terrifying thing a person can do, because when you cease to wrap yourself in artifice you are naked, and when you are naked you are vulnerable.

But vulnerability is the leading edge of truth. Being willing to sacrifice a false life is the only way to live a true one.

The moment of conversion is always, to some degree or other, a moment of “being put in [one’s] place.” This moment is always, to some degree, a moment of deprivation of “what one thinks one has” or is. This loss of who we think we are is the prerequisite for receiving and appreciating the one God has created us to be.

The notion of “affirmation” is extremely current in our time. It is obviously true that it is very important that we help each other to come to discover our true and unique identity and call. But there is also a danger in the wrong kind of “affirmation,” specifically when we see “affirmation”

as praise of another’s attributes or gifts. We do not serve others by “affirming” who they are not, by fostering their illusions. Our true spiritual identity is always a mystery — to themselves and, thus, to others. It is, as Paul says, “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) To truly serve another’s original calling requires on our part a deep reverence, humility and willingness to stand before the other’s mystery. Every human being is gifted, but our true gifts are not always what we think they are. Luke’s gospel reminds us that the call of the Fundamental Principles to affirm others and to let them affirm us is one that we must respond to in fear and trembling, less we support the illusions of the other and become a disservice to God’s work of formation, reformation, and transformation in them.

In this light, we might be able to hear the call “to affirm” as a call to presence rather than praise. Instead of believing it is our business to praise characteristics or attributes of another, we perhaps should practice the hard work of a humble and non-judgmental presence that allows the other’s struggle for self-emergence to work itself out on its own terms, unimpeded by our need or desire to be good for them. The psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes the following:

Now wherever there are small children — at the local playground, at Starbucks and at nursery school — you will hear the background music of praise: “Good boy,” “Good girl,” “You’re the best.” Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem . . . but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. . . . If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.
….

Being present builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about. Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we’ve not been attentive to her?

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?

Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life, pp. 21-2

Tags:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*