I make my living by using words. I love to listen to others who make their livelihood from oral presentations; my favorite is Garrison Keillor, my wife Kim’s favorite is Stuart McLean. I particularly enjoy the way people who use words draw the audience in, give us something to chew on, challenge us to stretch a little, give us a good laugh, exercise our caring gene and then end on an arresting note. Now that is a good presentation!
But in spite of this I am suspect of words, particularly words of praise. I try to be consistent, while I am a non-stop talker I only dole out praise when I really mean it. It gets tricky, someone I know who done a terrible job at something receives, “I really like your sweater.” My daughter Lucy says, “Dad that is as subtle as a brick!” Still, when I say that I usually get a warm smile in return. People love to be praised.
But often the words of praise have a tone of manipulation, the speaker is complimenting you so you will compliment her/him. That is awkward. And there are the times when the praise is a form of direction, having criticized you for a variety of actions the other considers poor choices the course of the praise turns to the one thing you did s/he finds acceptable, so a crumb of thanksgiving is thrown your way. Thank you?
Even though I use a lot of words and get very excited there is seldom any emotion behind my words. There is a reason. For most of my life I have experienced people who offer praise in a state of happy drama only to hear other less happy words that obviously connect to a less happy drama. In other words the other is telling you less about you or about what you’ve said or done and more about him/her, what is going inside in her/him and the words about you are only evidence to that reality. In order to get a true sense of how I am doing I need to step away from these words, in those emotional moments, and see evidence of how others are reacting to my work. I watch for the signs of positive energy or negative energy, for positive change or negative change, for the effect over a period of time that my work and words have had on others, not the words of praise or criticisms they offer.
People may come up to me after a religious service with tears in their eyes over a moving set of words I used but I know that next week, if I used a different set of words the reaction may be very different and the long-term assessment would likely neglect to mention the words of praise being used in that moment. It takes only one irritating sermon where the listener takes offence for him/her to immediately forget all the sermon where s/he thought you were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ all rolled up into one.
So I like words and I remember words but I wait for the action that comes after. Scripture is very good on this, in the Bible the expression most often used to describe this reaction is, “bear fruit”. That is a plant or tree may look good, look pretty, be an object of beauty but if there is no fruit being produced the whole health of the organism is thrown into question.
The highest compliments I receive are the ones where the actions of myself and others are evidence of words I chose in a situation that were life-giving, that touched something deeper and more profound that our own time and place. When we have touched the eternal, when we have been transformed, in a small or large way, we give thanks and who ever said or did something to help move us there can rightly be thanked.