The best compliment I ever got came to me when I was fifteen. It’s kind of a bummer when you get the best compliment you are ever bound to receive at such a young age, but it’s a cross I bare as gracefully as one can.
I can still recall where I was, walking in to one of my junior-year high school classrooms, and without any provocation, my friend Marie (one of the greatest people I’ve ever known, entirely apart from the very nice thing she said) told me I was the best person she knew, at being a person.
To this day, I have no idea what exactly she meant or why she thought to say it. But it sounded like the nicest thing I had ever heard. It was so vague as to be increasingly more flattering than if she’d commented for instance, on my ability to tie the best knots.
If she’d said I would make an awesome mother or a really effective POTUS I probably would have had the same reaction: awkward, self-deprecating bursts of laughter and probably some half-witty retort (she of all people brought out the funny bone in me– which, if you know me at all, is probably a little scary to imagine).
I’m one of the most awkward compliment-recipients on the face of this earth. If someone ever says something nice, I always feel a deep gratitude for the person for extending their love, and an immediate responsibility to return the warmth, but it makes me feel weird. Like tingly under a microscope. So, when she said that, I felt three things.
3) Like a huge weight of responsibility and expectation had just landed squarely on my shoulders. Should I now try and go out and save the world? I didn’t even know how to drive.
*Is that really the best word we’ve got for being in a mood where you think everything is funny? I think I’ve got to invent one. It would be used by me constantly to describe the state in which I usually exist.
**A quick post-posting use of a handy thesaurus, which I easily could have used prior to posting, but for some reason failed to do, produced a much more appropriate word: amused. 😉
It struck me as incredible (literally, not at all credible) that someone would think that about me, let alone say it out loud, let alone-squared, express it verbally. (Didn’t she have some sort of filter where that kind of stuff is supposed to get quickly deleted from the system before it starts infecting other mental-files?) The fact that a thought like that had made it past all three of those stages, still left me wondering how it had ever originated in someone’s gray matter at all.
It actually made me self-conscious. I did a quick run down of the things in my life I’d ever achieved. Just the important things, like how good my outfit was that day, and what about my hair? Just anything to have justified receipt of what I felt to be perhaps the single greatest compliment any man could possibly receive. (Not that I’d ever considered the matter prior to this, but the whole concept of being the best person Marie knew, at being a person seemed so grand!)
Keep in mind, this was at a time when I thought the highest form of compliment was that I was pretty, I had cool jeans, or my best friend had started dressing better since we started hanging out (okay, that one still makes me blush ;)). I’d never actually gotten a compliment from a peer about something that was any more than skin deep. I’d never even known to want one! It was like Christmas in July, except sometime during the school year.
I’m writing this not to point out how wrong she was about me (that’s probably evident in every other one of my posts) but as a reminder of just how long the meaning of our kind words have the ability to live on in other’s memories.
Now for the rub.
I’m also always talking about the importance of not listening to what other people say and just listening to yourself. And how a compliment shouldn’t change you any more than a mean remark. And the importance of inner balance and non-reactivity to external events (which, unfortunately includes really nice things people might say). So, how do these two things effectively co-habit in the great sphere of reality?
The answer to that lies in what I’m about to say: I don’t believe in believing in compliments. Yes, you heard me right. When they happen to me, I do my best to be as gracious and un-awkward as possible, and then move on. I focus on the love and gratitude I have for the other person, and that’s it. If I catch myself mentally basing in the glow of their momentary admiration, adding extra pressure to myself to live up to what they said, or considering adding it to my Testimonial Page, I know I’ve gone astray of my own best advice.
Same with negativity, which I’ve found can be just as difficult to step aside from, due to, ironically enough, the same egoic mind structure. In either case, you are taking something that is only someone’s temporary perception of you, and using it to label yourself. This is investment in an inherent falsehood. Whether positive or a negative, the outcome is that you take a step away from being in true connection with your inner self by accepting this label.
So, if I have one thing to say on the subject of compliments it’s this: I do my best to graciously ignore compliments just like I do my best to graciously ignore crappy things. Both can be hazardous to your health.
If you allow yourself to believe the hype, it’s very limiting. It’s kind of like allowing yourself to be put inside a box. Even a very attractive box, is still a box in the end. It can freak you out and make you afraid to take risks (another word for living your life) when you’re suddenly trying to balance the delicate tea cup of someone’s good graces upon your clumsy back.
When someone says something really amazing to you, about you, you might immediately begin to feel pressure to uphold it (please see my #2 reaction when Marie said that to me). You also may begin to believe it (hello, big ego). It is my sincere hope you begin to do neither. That is also my hope for myself, and something which I work on every time the ability to practice arises. (If you’d like to help me out with this, feel free to send me lots of emails telling me how much you love me! 😉 )
The truth is, I don’t actually believe what she said. It definitely ruffled me back then, but first of all, I know myself a little too well to think I’m good at being a good person. Even ten years ago I knew somewhere in the back of my mind to be wary of taking to heart such a sweeping positive generalization of myself. However, I was and am still grateful for the love in which she said it.
So if you’re not going to believe in the bad things people say (which I heartily impel you not to do, if you have any designs toward happiness) then you shouldn’t believe the nice things people say, either.
What?! That was fine for you, but I think that’s a rip off! Besides, I love feeling good about myself when people talk me up. It’s a natural high!
No, say I; the rip off occurs when you begin to let what other people think of you–great, bad, or otherwise– trump the way you connect with yourself, which should always be just love, no matter what the critics are crying that day. Plus, what goes up, must come down. So don’t strap yourself in to the roller coaster of other people’s opinions and emotions. You would really lose your lunch.
Because whether she had said that or not, I still would have been the same person at the moment, one way or another. It wasn’t like by her saying that, my value as a human being actually increased. I didn’t actually become a better person. Just for a moment, I thought maybe I was, because I hadn’t yet learned enough to write an article like this.
Conversely, if she’d said I’m really good at eating shit, it’s not as if my value as a human being would have decreased. While I was lucky enough to be near a very loving and open human at that moment, what would have happened if I’d walked into the room with a real jerkhead (that’s a scientific term)? Would whatever they’d said to me have had the power to bring me down? Back then, I’m sure it would have. This is something I remain alert for in myself today, because I know it to be based on fear and falsehood.
So here’s what I say next time you get paid a compliment, take the love, leave the rest. That compliment will wax and wane in truth, but the love with which it was given is forever. Keep to that love to pass on and feel gratitude for the person who reached out in humility and grace with that love to you.
Give love freely, even in the form of compliments, and mean each one sincerely, or don’t say it at all. Sometimes words are the best or only way we have to express our love. I am in no way against giving compliments. But do it for the right reason; the only one being the expression of love from you to them.
Conversely, don’t accept the words of compliments for yourself, but accept the love with which they are given. It doesn’t matter what someone says, but the intent with which they say it. Marie’s intent was what ultimately came across to me and has stayed with me all of these years. It was an observation she made with love, and that’s what has made her compliment stand the test of time in my moth-eaten memory.
If you think you want to aim for greatness, and you think it’s important to be remembered, the best way to do it is leaving your legacy in the love you pass on to others. No one will ever forget you for the kind words you said. Even if they can’t remember as specifically as I do with Marie, they will remember it subconsciously, and you fondly for it thereafter.
And remember to never take seriously the best, the worst, or the in between, of what is said of you. Don’t even take what you say to yourself about yourself with any credibility. To put yourself down into thoughts, concepts, or words, is like trying to fit the sky into a bottle. Nothing is to be believed when it comes to defining that which is undefinable.
Finally, whatever is written or said about you isn’t actually about you; it’s about the person who’s said it. If they say beautiful things, appreciate them for their inner beauty, not their ability to make you feel flattered. If they say things that would otherwise upset you (had you not read this piece) understand it’s only their lack of love for themselves that’s speaking, and love them for that, because hard as it might be to imagine, that’s really what they’re reaching out for.
And know without a doubt you are above the words of men, but equal in truth, to the speaker of those words.