Friday, October 24, 2014

Withholding Praise

I like to compliment people. I like to see the good in them, particularly if it is not obvious, and point it out to them. But just as often, when I am not in the mindset to search out such things, I will feel a sudden admiration for another person and reflexively withhold that praise. I'm not sure why I do that.

Sometimes the people whom I choose not to praise are rivals in some way, or people with whom I compare myself unfavorably, so the most obvious motive for withholding praise is jealousy or self-doubt. But I find it's often something I do with people whom I do not envy at all. Perhaps it is merely inconvenient to offer the praise, or may require creative energy which I lack. But there is something more to it-- a reason deeper than all of these easy ones-- that holds me back. I think that the praise I most often withhold is the most sincere. It is the goodness I notice in others which touches me the most deeply. Goodness that stirs me and makes me feel bare to acknowledge. To offer such praise is self-revelatory. It is an offering. To share it requires courage. Yet I have found that praise offered in this spirit is of the kind that can break down barriers between people. It is powerful. It is a deep recognition of our mutual humanity. Offered to a rival, it is humbling to both-- confusing, warm and comforting.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So often the wonder and beauty and raw power that we envy in our rivals is precisely the thing we wish to own within ourselves, and feel lacking. We fear that to praise it in another will point up its absence in ourselves. But instead, praising it has the opposite effect of making us seem to possess it too-- or perhaps, it even causes us to possess it. At the very least, it acknowledges the love that is at the core of envy-- love of virtue, hatred of its lack within ourselves.

What we love in others we can draw into ourselves through open praise. What we praise, we attract. When we envy, we confuse our self-loathing for other-loathing. When we love, we bring our love of others into ourselves.

So the point is: whenever you admire something deeply in another person, and feel the impulse to conceal that admiration, that apprehension is the hallmark of sincerity, and should instead prompt you to give expression to the admiration so that it can flower into the fullness of love for self and others, rather than turning into envy and self-loathing. For such love has at its root the same impulse as its opposite: that soul-bearing appreciation of virtues which we recognize in others and lack in ourselves. These are opportunities to learn, grow, expand, and become more. Yet so many times we instead treat these as occasions to retract, shrink, hide, and lessen ourselves.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Layering Experiences

The brain craves a certain layering of experience. I notice it most in complex decision-making. Human beings excel at tasks that require us to combine concurrent sets of observations into a single course of action. For example, navigating using a map requires the navigator to both chart a course based on the world as depicted on the map and to compare that with the real external world as he is moving through it. The destination is only reached when the two align. This type of analysis is common to almost any learned profession: doctors and nurses compare a patient's physical symptoms to his mental catalogue of ailments; a lawyer applies a body of laws to the facts of a client's case; an engineer creates machinery by combining his understanding of physical principles to the materials at his disposal in order to create useful tools and structures.

Complex decision-making requires mental dexterity, the ability to hop back and forth between gauging the status of the current situation, assessing the available outcomes, and choosing the course of action required to reach the optimal result. Any endeavor that requires this type of thinking yields, when properly executed, inherently rewarding results. And half of the reward is the navigation process itself. When we practice complex decision-making, our brains feel fully engaged; we are not bored.

We do something similar with aesthetic experiences. When we go out to dinner, we want not just excellent food but a good ambiance, which includes music and lighting, and we hope for good conversation with our companions. We prefer to relax in environments which stimulate several senses. These experiences get layered on top of one another and act to more fully engage us.

When we find ourselves in environments where we lack sufficient layers to experience, we feel uncomfortable or often, bored. Our brains are not being fully used. So often now, when we have that feeling, we reach for our phones or computers. These offer immediate engagement, an additional layer (or several) to our experience. I am concerned, however, that:

1. The constant availability of easy relief from even the smallest amount of boredom, such as during a five minute wait in the grocery store aisle, distracts us from finding other layers to experience which are also available but less obvious, such as noticing details in the environment, engaging in conversation with strangers, letting our minds wander and turn over problems in our subconscious, re-considering what someone meant when we spoke to them earlier, recalling a childhood memory or a comic's one-liner, or even rehearsing a to-do list for when we get home.

2. The same devices which we use to alleviate our boredom also create our boredom. The phone that we pick up to text on while we're driving and bored is the same device that made it easy to thoughtlessly navigate to a new destination using a GPS during that same trip. Instead of becoming bored and deciding to look at the phone while driving, we could have skipped the phone all together and spent our mental energy figuring out how to get where we were going. This reminds me of a lesson I slowly learned when my children were very small: that there was no use rushing through playing with them and then ending up having to figure out something else to do. It was easier and better for all of us if I submitted to their slower pace and let their games fill up the hours instead of following my own internal metronome and rushing to conclude activities only to have to figure out a new activity. Something in us wants to get things done as quickly as possible even when doing so means we will be bored when we're done. Our technology makes it all too easy to do this, and then offers a shallow substitute for the experience we could have had without it.