In Praise of Encouragement

Not long ago, on my other blog here, I wrote about why I need to avoid spending too much time stats-watching, measuring my progress or accomplishments, especially against those of others. I’ve thought since then about why it bothers me, apart, that is, from the distraction it causes from the real reason I write, which is that writing is part of who I am.

In retrospect, I can see pretty clearly that I’ve never been too big a fan of praise. Not that I mind being told I’ve done a good job, or having my accomplishments trumpeted. But hearing them described in the aftermath has never meant as much to me as hearing in moments of difficulty and doubt that someone believes I’ll get to where I want to be someday.

One of the greatest learning experiences of my life happened because of a high school running who believed in me for no reason I’ve ever been able to discern. Though he said very little, through all of his actions toward me, he communicated over and over that he expected me to reach my goals, and he treated me accordingly. I’ve never forgotten that, and I tried in my teaching to do the same, however well or poorly a student performed. I held them to the standard I had set, but I always tried to let them know that I believed they could reach that standard—even if they didn’t believe it—and I tried to help them do that.

Praise recognizes what you’ve accomplished. Encouragement expresses belief in what you can accomplish and therefore a belief in you, whatever you may or may not have achieved so far. Praise says, “I appreciate and admire what you’ve done.” And appreciation can be crucial, especially when one’s hard effort or good work has not been recognized. But encouragement says, “I believe in your ability to do what you haven’t yet achieved because I believe in you, in your potential, and in your spirit. I believe in who you are.”

In the Catholic days of my childhood and earlier adulthood, we often uttered professions of faith, prayers that stated our belief in a certain view of the divine. That belief gave us a confidence in what was possible, both in the present and in the future, however dire current circumstances might be. I like to think of encouragement as a similar kind of prayer–a profession of faith in another person and in the possibilities that person literally embodies.

Of course, people can use insincere encouragement to manipulate others. We get plenty of that from get-rich-quick infomercials and other hucksters in areas ranging from weight loss to education to spiritual enlightenment. Asking what the encourager wants in return (usually money for my book, program, church, DVD set) can help clarify what actually drives the encouragement.

One of my all-time heroes, Fred Rogers, embodied encouragement in everything he expressed. You can distill everything he said and did into the simple phrase, “I love and believe in who you are and who you can become.” And I think it explains why, to millions of people who never met him, who never knew him personally, he has such powerful emotional resonance, even years after his death. The idea that, with all our faults, with all the mistakes we’ve made, someone still feels that you, in those wonderful words of Dickinson “dwell in possibility.”

The words and actions of others that have stayed with me longest were those based on faith in me rather than on successes I’d already achieved. In my life, nothing has been more powerful than hearing in the midst of struggle or even after failure, “You know, I still believe in you.” For those reasons, I think encouragement is one of the most powerful gifts we can give to anyone, anywhere.

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