I don't come from the most encouraging family. Both my mother and father are pretty tight-lipped when it comes to pouring out praise. They come by it honestly; neither of their parents were apparently cheerleaders when it came to the accomplishments of their children.
I tend to swing in the other direction. Granted, my predilection to praise is probably directly rooted in the fact that I hungered for a morsel of "atta-girl" from my own mom and dad. I like to think it is just because I am generally pretty aware of the effort others put forward and like to acknowledge that. Wherever the tendency springs from, I know it's noticed. My kids give me a wonderful mirror to look into every time they echo: "Wow, that was hard work, but you did it!" or "How did you figure that out? You sure are smart!"
But as I said, I don't come from a very encouraging family. The best you were likely to get in my house growing up was a "You're better than that" or "I guess that's alright." I still don't count on a whole lot of "You sure are smart!" comments when I talk to my mother. She may very well tell others that she thinks I'm the bee's knees, but she'd never admit it to me. And the closest thing I hear from my dad (when I talk to him once every quarter) is that I made a wise choice in buying a Dodge.
As a result, it takes a lot to really burst my bubble. And I really don't rely on the feedback of others to make or break my mood or day. Growing up without much "building up" leaves you either oblivious or bitter. I picked oblivious. And for the most part, it's not a terrible way to be as long as you pray to keep your heart from growing hard.
So I was caught completely off-guard on Sunday when I hung up the phone and felt the sting of an obvious cut-down.
The perp was one of my mom's sisters, an aunt with whom I spent many a summer growing up. I'll call her Aunt Bea, though she has nothing in common with Andy's beloved aunty in Mayberry. Aunt Bea has never really liked me--as far as I can tell--but then again, she's never really seemed overly fond of anyone in my generation. She is nice enough, don't get me wrong. She housed me and fed me and entertained me for quite a lot of my childhood memories, so I can't complain too much, KWIM?
Aunt Bea has always had the same acidic tongue as my mother. She "nit picks" as we Southerners say; she finds a sore spot and hones in on it. Then, like a child who can't keep their hands off a loose tooth, she wiggles and waggles it until you just want to snap. I'll be fair here and say that I really don't think she is aware that this bothers people. I really don't think she is a terrible, awful person. I think it's just ingrained in her--like it's ingrained in my mother--and she doesn't think twice before she sets to picking.
When the phone rang on Sunday and I saw her name in the caller id, I admit that I braced myself. Aunt Bea honestly only calls me when she and my mother are at war, which happens about once a year. I had low expectations when I answered the phone, and I was rewarded. Aunt Bea never asks how I am. Never wants to hear about my kids, my husband, my life. She usually gets right to unearthing the ugly things every family has in its closet ... which is precisely what she did. I dodged and ducked the comments. Finally, after Aunt Bea had pumped me for information about when I might come east and why my brother isn't working, she gave a long sigh and hit me with this one:
"Well, I have to say, you sure seem like you're doing good out there. It surprises me. I never thought you had it in you to turn out o.k."
Did she just say that?!?! She did! She just told me that I was a big old loser in whom she had no faith, and was completely amazed that I'd managed to pull myself up to some level of civility that she deems acceptable!
I answered very sweetly. I'm pretty proud of my reply actually, because it's usually only after a day or two of reliving any given situation that I come up with what I wish I had said. I told her, "Thanks, Aunt Bea. I sure am glad you waited until now to tell me that. You know, if you had said that to me back when I was first married and trying to figure out my direction in life, it would have really hurt me."
She didn't say anything back, of course. She got off the phone pretty quick, asking me to send her a Christmas card. Uh ... o.k. Sure thing.
I write this not to make any big statement. No, maybe I am making a big statement: encourage someone today. Take the time to tell them something wonderful about themselves, or to thank them for the way that they love or live. Even if it feels weird, just do it. Because you just don't know. They may have just hung up with their Aunt Bea. And if she's been spreading her style of compliment, they may really be blessed by yours.