Encourager vs. Discourager

How we respond to others is an often subtle art, though it can make a big difference. The word “courage” is embedded in the two effects our responses have on others. We can either encourage or discourage by our reactions. We often react by reflex, but it is something we should be aware of doing better at, it seems to me. Personally, when it comes to people I encounter, I’d usually much rather encourage them than discourage them. I have been discouraging many times over the years, by simply not thinking before I comment, something I’ve become more aware of as times goes on.

I wrote yesterday about Friedman’s devastatingly discouraging remark at a hard time for me. In his defense, he was at his wits’ end when he said it. Walking with his best friend, an affable guy with a gift for gab, who had become a shambling, monosyllabic zombie, he found himself bereft. He was reaching out to his old friend, trying to help, and all his always talkative friend could do was grunt the occasional noncommittal syllable. Of all the people he could imagine this happening to, I was the last of them. He simply said what he felt, what anyone likely would have felt at that moment.

For purposes of that understandable remark, we don’t need to consider that Friedman, by his unhappy, critical nature, was a reflexive discourager. He was a perfectionist and a control freak, very demanding of himself and everyone else. Few things were what they were supposed to be in his world. For one thing, he was extremely sensitive, and talented, and sang his clever, musically ambitious songs, (in a painful voice, granted), from his heart. The world needed to hear his take on things, he believed. The world, it turned out, didn’t give shit one about what was in his heart. If you don’t get what you need from the world, why give it to anyone else?

I have always consciously tried to encourage people, especially in creative endeavors. There is always something good to find in any work of creation. Don’t like the song the songwriter played for you? “Wow, I forgot what a great voice you have,” is not a bad thing to say, it gives the singer a little boost. It is so easy, while being honest, to unintentionally discourage somebody. “Eh, that song didn’t do anything for me, not your best work, it doesn’t swing, the melody is weak, there’s no hook, it’s… eh,” while truthful, is like throwing yer proverbial turd in the old punchbowl. It is an honest but discouraging thing to say that probably doesn’t need to be said, in most cases.

My mother, in her later years, took up acrylic painting for a short time. She went to class with a photo and came back after every session with a finished painting from the photo. She mentioned that she was by far the most prolific painter in her class, many were still working over their paintings from the first week while my mother had already completed many. Her paintings were pretty good. A few evoked her deep loneliness in a very profound way. There is one in particular, of a fat seagull sitting alone under a stormy grey sky, the turbulent ocean reflecting the gloom in cold, grayish green, that is a powerful evocation of her existential aloneness. I actually love that painting, which is now owned by her granddaughter, who was obviously also moved by it.

When I visited my parents in Florida during my mother’s painting frenzy there were several of her paintings, framed and hung on the walls. She showed them to me, her artist son, and asked me what I thought. She never let me forget my unenthusiastic reply, which she always recounted as a damning “eh…” I didn’t take a second to think, apparently, that a kind word from me about her work would have meant a lot to her, possibly encouraged her to continue painting, if she wanted to. I honestly had no feelings about most of the paintings, painted faithfully from fairly pedestrian magazine photos, but I could have walked the entire apartment and stopped before the painting of the fat, lonely seagull under that cruel sky. I could have said “wow, I love this one, it does what a great painting is supposed to do — it makes you feel. I can really feel this poor bird’s loneliness.” Instead, I apparently said, of all her artistic efforts, “eh…”

Sekhnet is an amazing artist who rarely finds time to draw or paint these days. Since her retirement she has been super-busy with dozens of things which leave her little time to draw, something she loves to do. I recently took a mat knife to a watercolor block and made us a pile of 4 X 6 postcards, with a sheet of postcard stamps next to it. I painted a couple and sent them to her, which got her thinking about returning the favor. Over the course of a few days she drew, and embellished, a delightful, whimsical beastie of some kind on one side and, on the other, in pale colors, wrote a greeting. When I got it (during a brief layover at my apartment) I snapped a photo and wrote: perfectly timed! I also noted that I loved the beast.

“What about the other side?” she asked. Sekhnet has a thing about too much white on a drawing. We disagree about this sometimes, but it is a constant critique of her’s about drawings I present to her: too much white space! She left too much white space on the message side of her card, and, acknowledging this, wrote, in tiny letters, “too much white space!” There was, in this case, objectively, way too much white space. In addition, the color had been applied very tentatively, so that the space that was not white was washed out. Not only too much white space, too little contrast, too little to otherwise catch the eye. Still, my unenthusiastic response miffed her. She found it discouraging that I would point this out, when she asked me what I thought of the flip side of her postcard. “No more postcards for you!” she immediately threatened. A threat I have no doubt she’ll make good on.

Decades ago, when I was teaching third grade in Harlem, I had a student named Gerald Davenport. We did a unit on poetry and the kids all submitted their original poems, which I typed out and printed up in a little booklet they all got a copy of. Gerald’s disappointment in not having his poem, which made no sense to me at the time, included in the collection haunts me to this day. Several times afterwards he asked me, poignantly, why I didn’t put his poem in the book with the rest. Each time I had no answer, except that I had been an unthinking asshole, which I was not able to really express, except by telling him each time that I was sorry, that it had been a mistake. The mistake was being an unthinking asshole who accidentally discouraged a kid when he could have instead easily encouraged him. Food for thought.

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