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Reflection: Give Me My Flowers While I Can Smell Them

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I’ve started making a habit of telling people things I admire about them, for no particular reason.

They may be large things or small.

The people may be family, friends, colleagues, or others I have known from afar and am now fortunate enough to meet.

Recent highlights include complimenting someone’s sense of style, attention to detail, tenacity in pursuing goals, loyalty as a friend, ability to see the best in people, and skill in making their point in thirty minutes or one.

Why am I doing it?

It’s not because I want to get something from them.

It isn’t the result of a mission statement.

It isn’t a networking tool.

I just realized that I will often see someone do some praiseworthy, and not praise it.

Or I’ll tell someone else what I admire about you.

And that, frankly, is insane.

Why should we skip words of praise?

Because they diminish us?

Because people will question our motives?

Because we worry people won’t receive them?

I would respectfully argue that all of these come from a broken place. We don’t praise others because we are thinking about ourselves. How will encouragement benefit me? How might it harm me?

How sad is that?

I could make the world a little bit better and brighter,

I could tell someone I love something I love about them, but I don’t, because I’m worried about how it might go wrong for me?

I think by the time I get here, I’ve lost the plot.

Proverbs 3:27 (NIV) says do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.

The illustration in the ensuing verse invokes the imagery of financial help. You need money. I have money. I tell you, however, that I’ll give you something tomorrow. That’s bad.

This, however, is worse.

You need an encouraging word.

I have an encouraging word.

And it costs me nothing. Kind words are free.

And the benefits are many.

First, praise combats envy: Admiring gifts I don’t have guards against my natural tendency towards envying those gifts. If I just go by my flesh, I will start resenting people who have things I don’t. Then I will start writing stories about them. The person who has more money than I do is materialistic. The person who beat me in a competition has unfair advantages. Every sports team except my favorite team cheats. In a tribalized age, the danger of this is magnified. If I am willing to attribute limitless vices to my enemy, their success will inevitably, in my mind, underscore their corruption. If, on the other hand, I can genuinely admire other people’s gifts, the gifts won’t become evidence of their wickedness. If I can admire something about my enemy, I might inadvertently make them human.

Second, praise communicates value: As a minister, I perform funerals. And a common occurrence at a funeral is a person expressing either bitter regret, or fragile hope, because they never told the deceased their true feelings about them, and they want to believe their loved one knew what was unexpressed. There was an apology left unoffered, or an attempt at reconciliation left un-started. And to that, my plea to the living is: say what you need to say. Say it early. Say it often. Tell your people you love them every day. Tell them till it annoys them. And then tell them some more. Don’t let death pre-empt a conversation you had every opportunity to have.

Third, praise is best given to the living: One of my early mentors would often say “give me my flowers while I can smell them.” She encouraged me to give honor where it was due, early and often. The notion is that just as only the living can appreciate the beautiful flowers we buy for them, our opportunity to speak well of someone, to them, ends when they die. Surely, we can, and often do, produce great words and make beautiful monuments to the dead. But actually telling people what they mean to you, while they are here, makes all the difference.  

My stepfather was a high school principal who found some of his greatest satisfaction in working with the kids that the system had deemed lost causes. And one of the things he would often say is, we focus so much on catching kids doing something wrong. Why not try to catch them doing something right?

So I will continue expressing my admiration of great gifts, medium talents, and small but wonderful abilities.

And just maybe, I’ll catch someone doing something right.

(Photo Credit: Eriks Abzinovs)

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