sorry, not this year

The Big Idea: bring out the best in others to reveal the best in you.

Belle, our chocolate lab, loves praise.

She loves belly rubs, too, but she’ll do anything so long as you tell her she’s a good girl. She’ll even walk around the house picking up her toys if you tell her how proud you are. She’s not bashful about seeking your praise, either. She’ll look at you with beautiful brown eyes and a titled expression wondering, “Am I am a good girl today?”

Belle and I aren’t so different, honestly. In fact, I’m sure I crave affectionate praise more than she does. I may not wiggle my rear-end in excitement when someone says, “Good job, Nate!” but my ego is far more fragile. Belle’s self-esteem doesn’t fluctuate to the same extent that mine wavers from day to day. If she gets a walk and a treat, she feels pretty good about herself.

While it’s not surprising that my emotions are more complex than my canine companion, I don’t think I’m unique in this. I think we all live to hear the words, “Well done.” We long for the inner peace of knowing we’re enough, that we measure up in the eyes of others.

To borrow Dale Carnegie’s words, “I can look back at my own life and see where a few words of praise have sharply changed my entire future. Can't you say the same thing about your life?”

In our pursuit of praise, we typically elevate our good qualities, while shoving our negatives traits into that one junk drawer hiding all the dead batteries, coupons, and rubber bands. I ensure my co-workers see my ambition. I never disclose the moments in which it limits the time I spend with my family. This typically works out for a little while, but a self-promoting, image-managing approach to securing others’ approval never succeeds for long. We seem foolish when we’d hoped to appear wise. We look ugly when we’d hoped to look attractive.

We realized this a few year back and we did away with boasting in favor of the “humblebrag.” You know, bragging couched in veiled humility, or a fake complaint that makes declaring your awesomeness a little more palatable. The New York Times and Washington Post even featured the topic in their respective pop-culture columns in recent years.

For example, “I can’t stand flying first class. I have to sit on the plane longer than everyone before we take off.” Or, “It’s so hard being the company’s smartest employee. Everyone asks me to stay late and help them with their projects.

So, if outright boasting is ugly, the humblebrag is insincere, and our craving for adoration remains unquenched, where can we turn? Who will validate us?

While it’s counterintuitive, I believe this conversation should start from the opposite perspective, entirely. We’ll do best by first lifting up those around us. You see, by placing someone else above ourselves, we demonstrate our capacity for humility and modesty. These are far higher and more noble characteristics than pride.

Besides, if we all desire praise and we need the occasional, “You’re doing a great job,” don’t we all want to live life with the people who make us feel noticed, and valued?

Just like the sea that sits below the streams around it, increasing in power and grandeur as the earth’s rivers are drawn toward it, we also gravitate to those who lower themselves. By pointing out the best in others, you actually, by extension, reveal the best in you.

We all have a certain “ness” about us. I have a Nate-ness to me. You have a you-ness to you. Before we discover our ness, we’re impressionable. As we search for what makes us special, a sense of identity, we need someone to point us in the right direction. We need a guide who’s willing to use their words to bring out the best in us, and equip us for the journey ahead.

Personally, I was never more sensitive to the words of those around me than during my high school years. I clung to feedback from my teachers, peers, and especially the girls I liked. Naturally, I wasn’t sure who I was becoming during these years, so for better or worse, I looked to others’ input to define me.

Fortunately, this was the same time in which I met my high school baseball coach, Willie. When I met Willie, I immediately knew I wanted to be known as a person who did things the right way. I wanted to work hard and demonstrate integrity.

I’ve previously mentioned that during my freshman year, I was one of two students below five feet tall. The other guy, Dave, didn’t care for baseball, so I was the only runt trying to prove he could contribute to the team’s dream of winning a regional title.

My diminutive stature meant I couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield. I was slow rounding the bases, and I didn’t have the reach to stop hard-hit balls from squirting into the outfield. In short, I left a lot to be desired. I did have one thing going for me, however. I was tenacious. I had a fire in my belly, and I was determined to prove that I’d be more motivated than any other player (yes, just like Rudy and every classic sports movie out there).

As it turns out, that approach worked. Coach Willie knew baseball was about life, not some regional title that didn’t matter all too much anyway. Willie was in the business of training men as much as ball players.

The first day I walked onto Willie’s baseball field, he told me to straighten my hat and tuck in my shirt. He was always talking about “discipline,” and conducting ourselves with pride. We did things the right way or not at all. He didn’t tolerate shortcuts, like showing up to gameday with dirty cleats. Coach Willie had more experience than every coach in the state, so we listened to him.

When we’d drive the team bus to away games, Willie wouldn’t leave until I was sitting in the passenger’s seat. He was a scout for the San Diego Padres, so I’d listen to him talk on the phone about big-league stuff as we drove. After he’d hang up, he’d fill me in on what really happens behind the scenes in the major leagues. The combination of sitting up front and listening to the pro’s talk shop said I had a place on Willie’s team, regardless of my ability to crush doubles and chase ground balls.

When Willie looked at me sitting in the passenger seat chewing sunflower seeds, I think he saw a wide-eyed kid trying to make himself into something through sheer effort. I also think he knew that the baseball field would turn me pliable; I’d actually listen and apply the lessons he taught us. I’m sure it’s why he gave me a jersey. It certainly wasn’t my athletic prowess.

When Willie told me I was a ball player, he was really saying, “You’re enough. Come belong here.”

I appreciated that more than he knew. I couldn’t wait for the spring season my sophomore year, and when my junior year rolled around, Willie started coaching the varsity team. Playing for Willie with a varsity letter was going to be the pinnacle of my high school career. I was beyond excited, and I put in my best effort during the two-day tryouts, just as I always had.

This time, however, it wasn’t enough.

Willie called me into his office right after tryouts finished up. As I walked in, I was all smiles. I figured we were going to talk about the new uniforms, the away game schedule, or something you’d discuss with the guy who rode in the passenger seat. When Willie didn’t say anything, I started to grow concerned. Then, tears began to slip down his cheeks.

He just shook his head and whispered, “Not this year, Nate. I’m sorry. Not this year.”

I started to cry too, but I quickly choked back my sobs. I wanted Willie to know that I’d learned how to be a man. That I’d grown up and could remember to tuck in my shirt on my own.

Strangely, I was thankful for Willie’s tears. They told me that the baseball field didn’t define who I was. His sniffles confirmed that our relationship wasn’t merely transactional, that my worth wasn’t limited to my utility as a position player.

As I walked out of his office, Willie said I’d always be one of his favorite players. He told me I was becoming someone he was proud of, no matter what the roster said. You see, Willie knew that people typically turn out as we say they will. If we tell them they’re loved, they’ll act like loveable people.

Willie gave me a sense of dignity to live out, and for that, he’ll always be a giant in my memory.

Jesus was in the business of shaping lives, too. He regularly used people who looked like they’d be as much help as a short kid on a baseball field, and he made them into world-changing activists. He once told a bunch of guys on a boat, “I will make you fishers of men,” and with those few words, he gave them a higher calling. He didn’t talk to them as insignificant laborers who, I’m sure, smelled like raw fish. He turned them into students of a renowned teacher.

What’s more, Jesus didn’t just call them to become disciples and leave it at that. He let them listen into the big-league conversations in the passenger seat. He let them into all parts of his life. They witnessed the good parts, like miracles, and the truly horrible parts, like contemplating his own death in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus also used his words to give a higher calling to a woman named Mary. During a time when popular culture generally viewed women as property as much as people, Jesus spoke up and honored her. As she cleaned his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed him with perfume, everyone around Mary and Jesus chastised her. They told Mary she was wasting good perfume, and being foolish for throwing away an entire year’s wages.

Jesus could have agreed with them. He could have cast Mary aside and associated himself with the men of higher status sitting around the table. He didn’t do that, though. Instead, Jesus gave Mary a new reputation. He said she’d not only done a beautiful thing for him, he said she’d be remembered wherever stories are told. He gave her a legacy in addition to a good name.

Think about that for a second. Can you imagine how Mary must have felt as she approached a renowned teacher, unprompted, in a setting where she was viewed as less-than? She must have been terrified, shaking as she wept on his feet.

Now, can you envision how she would have felt while walking out of that room? Jesus gave her dignity! He disregarded an entire cultural stigma and he changed her label from a wasteful woman to a living legend.

This is the reason the apostle Paul writes about having the same perspective as Christ. As he writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” he’s really suggesting that hollow actions won’t cut it. He’s encouraging us to see others as valuable, and in fact, to treat them as more significant than ourselves. In the same letter, Paul points out how this seemingly upside-down spiritual principle is observed in Christ’s life:

[T]hough he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.

This is critically important because none of us are static. We’re always progressing into more humble and heavenly versions of ourselves, or more hollow and hellish caricatures of who God designed us to be. C.S. Lewis describes this as:

…[A]ll your life long you are slowly turning… into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

The questions we’ve arrived at, then, are how are you encouraging the people around you? Are you using your words to praise others, and to give them an admirable reputation to live out? Do people feel they’re valued and validated by you? Can they see a more noble, future version of themselves when they’re in your presence?

These questions are worth spending some time on. Our answers will ultimately reveal more about you, and me, than others.

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