ESSAY

Week 2

Choosing Praise

by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship

At the beginning of his book of poetry, Praise, Robert Hass writes:

We asked the captain what course 
of action he proposed to take toward 
a beast so large, terrifying, and 
unpredictable. He hesitated to 
answer, and then said judiciously: 
“I think I shall praise it.”
 

I love this quote more than I can tell you. I love that the captain, the leader, knows that he is responsible for the considered choice that will produce the best possible odds for his crew, and so, “judiciously,” he decides that the best approach to the terrifying beast is to praise it.

Mostly we assume that safety demands that we defend ourselves, that we attack before we can be harmed. Mostly we figure that at the very least it is crucial that we strike at what threatens us, that we yell or threaten or make noise to try to drive it back. And I expect that there are situations where that is the best response—perhaps when you encounter a mountain lion while you’re out hiking.

But I wonder if there might not be situations—perhaps even more situations than we had ever imagined—in which praise might turn out to be the judicious option. When my daughter was young (OK, who are we kidding, this is still true now she’s 20), her response to being justifiably chastised for doing something wrong was to become angry and defiant. Which, I am not proud to say, tended to send me right over the edge of my patience. You’ve screwed up, and now you’re coming at me as if it is somehow my fault that you were bad? I might have been just a little mad before, but now I am furious, and I have every right to be!

I had every right to be mad. But it didn’t help. Eventually I realized that the only way my daughter knew how to deal with her feelings of guilt and anxiety was to turn them outward, to place the blame somewhere that felt safer than sitting with her painful emotions. Sure, she was wrong, both in the initial misdeed and in the angry response. But it was what she knew how to do. And I can assure you that my going into punitive mode really, really didn’t fix things.

What might have happened if I had the wherewithal to choose, instead of attacking back, to respond with praise to the beast that was my raging child? What might have happened if I led with assurances that she was loved and cherished? What if I started with acknowledging some of the things that I was proud of her for, so that the thing I didn’t like came as a contrast?

Honestly, I don’t know. I mostly haven’t been able to do it. But I have learned to step away from blame and shame. Yes, if I have been telling you for months that it is crucial that you collect your W-2 forms from your various jobs over the past year so that you can file taxes for the first time, and then you tell me on April 10th that somehow you don’t have two of the forms, I am going to be annoyed. But I can also decide, judiciously, that my annoyance is not really relevant to the situation. Expressing it is not going to help. Far more useful to acknowledge how hard the process is, and that you’ve taken some of the needed steps, and then to try to help you figure out what the next steps need to be.

I am not ashamed to say that much of how I now look at human relationships is based in what I have learned from my avocation as a positive reinforcement dog trainer. Let me be clear. I am not saying that children are like dogs. I am saying that we are all animals, and that the laws of learning apply across the board. And one of the things I have learned is that it’s really hard to teach a being not to do something. It’s hard to teach a friendly dog not to jump on your guests and it’s hard to teach yourself not to mindlessly graze on junk food. It’s way easier to teach someone to do something—to teach your dog to keep their paws on the floor if they want petting or to teach yourself to buy healthier snacks.

It is far more efficient to praise and support the behaviors we want than to punish and shame the behaviors that we don’t want. Which feels just about as sensible as praising the terrifying beast in our path. After all, when someone—our child, our partner, a stranger on Facebook—has done something wrong, it’s only natural to hold them responsible by punishing their behavior, if only with sharp words. Choosing praise over blame feels ridiculous.

About as ridiculous as Jesus’ admonition to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” This is not the world’s logic. Oddly, however, it might just be the logic that creates the change we long to see.