When Lucy was at Tufts, some students started an organization called “Tufts Free Compliments.” The members went around campus scattering compliments like dandelion seeds: “you look great!,” “I really like your hair,” “What you said in class was so smart,” the idea being that we all can benefit from some unsolicited positivity. Fox News would likely decry such sweetness as another example of snowflake-y delicacy on the part of today’s pampered elite youth. Mia and her friends had a similar impulse in middle school. They would sit in a circle, and each person would say something they liked about Rachel, then Caleb, then Emmy, and so forth. They’d work their way around the circle until each one of them had collected a bouquet of compliments from their friends. I always thought it was such a healthy and wise practice, to build each other up this way.
The universe has been generous with me these past few days, offering me compliments that I didn’t see coming, but appreciated very much. Free support from the collective unconscious is a boon, so I’ve always tried to be a generous giver of genuine compliments myself; I believe in the healing power of words when spoken from the heart. Paying someone a sincere compliment seems to me the simplest random act of human kindness I can make. Yet I am not adept at receiving praise graciously, without a reflex of WASPy deferral that holds someone’s gift to me at a distance. It’s a defense mechanism I have when I’m touched: I minimize.
Paying someone an authentic compliment is a vulnerable thing to do. In essence, you are saying “I love you, I love this thing about you.” There’s an intimacy that’s quite precious. And also risky, in a world where appearance is everything and genuine moments of connection are hard to come by. I so often want to float under the radar, to go unseen, to stay out of the fray. And yet, I have an intense desire to be seen for who I truly am—a yearning I believe lies at the heart of much of human striving, at least after your basic needs for food, water, shelter, safety have been met. John and I were talking about it a few weeks ago: there’s the fear of being seen at your most vulnerable, and also the thrill of being seen and known for who you truly are, warts and all.
So if you are one of those folks who in the past few days said something really nice to me about my class, or my writing, my blog images, or my general-all-round wonderfulness (thanks Dad and Mom), I will try to stand tall and receive it without self-consciousness. Thank you for being brave and kind enough to show me your appreciation. Your open heart has lifted me up.
I promise I’ll pay it forward.