The Power of Encouragement
While I was helping the poet Helen Steiner Rice write her life story, she gave me access to her files. They revealed just how much her verses meant to a multitude of readers. There was correspondence from all over the world. From men and women, young and old, Christian and non-Christian. Mrs. Rice answered every one of the thousands of letters that came to her each year.
Her poems, she wrote once, were simply "the musings of a thankful heart, a heart much like your own, For nothing that I think or write is mine and mine alone . . . So if you found some beauty in any word or line It's just your soul's reflection in proximity with mine."*
"It must give you enormous satisfaction to know that your words have encouraged so many," I told her.
"It's a double blessing," she replied. "When people tell me that my verses have inspired them, I get a tremendous lift too. Their encouragement is the best pay I can receive."
I thought of her statement the other day when I read some statistics about job dissatisfaction. According to one survey, as much as a third of the work force would change jobs if given the chance. Have that many people chosen the wrong line of work? I doubt it. More likely they feel shortchanged because their jobs offer nothing but a paycheck. Now, I grant that in uncertain economic times a steady salary is no little matter, but it is also true that every one of us needs to feel wanted and useful. Unfortunately, not all bosses understand this.
Recently, over lunch, the chief executive officer of a large West Coast corporation described his management style to me. "I don't believe in passing out too many accolades," he said. "No matter how well my people do, I want them to know I think they can do better. That's the way to keep people on their toes."
It's also the way to keep them unsure, uninvolved, uncommitted and unfulfilled. So much criticism can be destructive in ways that may dog the hearer for years.
Nancy M., a successful advertising executive, told me that as a young girl she had had a monumental inferiority complex. "I could never measure up to my parents' expectations," she said. "If I got four A's and one B on my report card, my father would reprimand me for not working hard enough. Mother was constantly critical of my appearance. Though I was average in size, I was derided again and again for being fat. As a result, I became anorexic and spent years in analysis." Denied her parents' blessing, Nancy still struggles with her self-image today.
Compare her story to one told by Maya Angelou, the writer who composed and delivered the inspiring poem at President Clinton's inauguration. At 20 years old, struggling to make her way, she took a life-changing trip to San Francisco to visit her mother. When it was time to leave, her mother walked the young poet down the hill to wait for the streetcar. As they kissed good-bye, the mother said, "You know, baby, I think you are the greatest woman I have ever met."
"Waiting for the streetcar," Maya Angelou recalls, "I sat there thinking: Just suppose she's right. Suppose I really am somebody. It was one of those moments when the sky rolled back. At times like that, it's almost as if the whole earth holds its breath."
Anyone who has contact with young people—parents, grandparents, teachers, ministers, coaches—has enormous opportunities to influence and inspire. But it takes vision. Like seeing a beautiful vase in a lump of clay or a statue in a piece of granite.
My friend Arthur Gordon tells a marvelous story in his book A Touch of Wonder. It's about some young college students at the University of Wisconsin who aspired to be writers. In order to polish their skills they formed two clubs that met weekly to review works in progress. But the two groups were highly different in their approaches. The members of one club decided that total honesty was the way to hone one another's talents, and they tore into every paper with no sensitivity whatsoever to the author's feelings.
The second club looked for the positives in every piece and tried to support one another. Many years later the results of the two schools were clear. The club of critics produced no writers of note; the encouragers counted several members who went on to successful writing careers—one of them Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of the Pulitzer prizewinning classic The Yearling.
One thing with which the world will never be oversupplied is mentors—people who take an interest in the goals and aspirations and struggles of others. Of course, there is no greater example of an effective mentor than Jesus. Consider the work He did preparing His disciples to continue His ministry, demonstrating in word and deed how He expected them to serve and love.
It was a daunting task. The 12 He chose were not learned men and they didn't always grasp what He was trying to teach, but the Master was patient and full of expectations for them. If you have any doubts, look at Matthew 16, where Jesus asks Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," answers Peter. "You are Peter," Christ responds. "On this rock I will build My church." Peter? The same man that Jesus knows will betray Him? Not only were His words prophetic, surely they offered the deepest encouragement in the years ahead.
We all need someone who believes in us and says so, now. I tried to put that thought in a verse published several years ago:
"Don't wait for the perfect season to give your love away,
Don't wait for the ideal reason your thankfulness to pay . . ."
The last line contained the words: "Tomorrow may be too late."
A man named Will, in Illinois, came upon that verse and wrote to tell me it had prompted him to send a letter to his older brother, Tom, with whom he had not been in contact for years. "I read your poem on Tuesday and sent off my letter to Tom the next day," Will wrote. "I told Tom how often I thought of him and the encouragement he gave me when I was growing up. I also reminisced about times with Mom and Dad at home, and the fishing trips we had made together. Then I closed with, 'Write when you can. I miss you and I love you.'"
But Tom didn't answer; his wife did. "Tom got your letter on Friday afternoon," she reported. "The rest of the day he talked about it and the memories you had rekindled, and before he retired that night he said he would write you in the morning. But he had not been well, and during the night he passed away."
Timely benevolence and the magic of praise work like a boomerang—they always come back to the sender. Helen Steiner Rice was right when she told me that encouragement is a double blessing, and also when she wrote these words that say you and I are always paid when we reach out with love to others:
"You can't light a candle to show others the way
Without feeling the warmth of that bright little ray.
And you can't pluck a rose, All fragrant with dew,
Without part of its fragrance remaining on you."
You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
by Fred Bauer, Princeton, New Jersey
Reprint from Guideposts
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