Encouragement for the Faint of Heart

Lots of things get written, built, drawn, or baked because, somewhere in their back story, their maker was encouraged. PeggySue Wells points out the word courage in the middle of encouragement. Encouragement provides courage.

Time with my sons leaves me feeling encouraged. The world seems to have new possibilities when they’re around. Partly, this is because they provide a window that looks into their generation, and helps me see with fresh eyes. Partly, it’s because they know my foibles and believe in me anyhow. Over the years I have: bought a house, traveled to Europe, self-published a book, started a website and a blog — helped by their encouragement.

There’s no mollycoddling about it, either. They make fun of my taste in music and my computer skills (“Mom, if you double-click one more time I’m going to slap your hand!”) and edit my conversational style (which is admittedly non-sequential verging on schizophrenic.) Our relationships have the ups and downs most moms have with most sons, I imagine.

But they urge me to think great things can happen, and that there are ways of doing things I haven’t thought of. I try some, and good things happen.

I heard Kris Valotton recently, talking about the Apostle Paul and his sometime-fellow-minister in the Book of Acts, Barnabus. Paul was converted to Christianity in the midst of a ministry of tossing Christians to lions. Christians of his day were understandably leery of taking him to their bosoms, but Barnabus took him under his wing. Later, after a falling-out with Paul, Barnabus took his nephew Mark under that same wing.

Nice guy, Barnabus, was as far as my thoughts about him went. But what Valotton pointed out is that Paul and Mark were, together, responsible for thirteen books of the New Testament. And behind those thirteen books is the encouragement Barnabus gave their authors.

Encouragement, to me, is someone else’s calm certainty that I can do good things. It’s a cheerful attitude that smiles at my megrims and says, “OK — and when are you going to start?” It listens to me kvetch, then holds out a hand to coax me forward. There’s no worried frown on the brow of an encouraging person — their certainty that you can do it moves you out onto the balance beam, the skating rink, the stage, the internet. You’re walking out on the strength of the smile or the wink of the person who thinks you can.

Encouragement can sound like nagging, but it doesn’t feel like it. It can sound like joking — a guffaw at silly indecision and ridiculous procrastination. It can verge on counseling — one son pointed out that being extremely self-deprecating is as egotistical as being arrogant. Ouch! Thanks! Encouraging!

For it is nothing if not honest. I believe people who say stuff is good only if I know they would tell me if it stunk. I rewrote The Piglys and the Hundred-Year Mystery five times based on five honest critiques from encouraging friends who told me to: put in a bad guy! (Juanita Carey) break my adverb habit! (MaryJo Stilwell) give the book a timeline! (Suzy Hosek) clear up the motivations! (Rich Stein) eliminate self-indulgent digressions! (Elena Scott Whiteside.) True encouragement will never lure you onto a cracked balance beam or send you out with your fly down. It is the opposite of Charles Schultz’s Lucy yanking the football away after urging Charlie Brown to give it a good kick. It knows the difference between shit and Shinola, and tells you before you serve it up to an audience.

Because it must be honest, encouragement requires the deft touch of a diplomat, the aim of an archer and the timing of a trapeze artist. In soccer and hockey, there’s a stat for goals and assists — some assists demonstrate as much skill as the score. Encouragement is the assist, and it is an art. The people who practice it are largely anonymous or ignored. They are artists and investors, investing in the lives of those they encourage. Maurice Sendak’s Dear Genius is a thick tribute to the encouragement of editor Ursula Nordstrom. It’s a compendium of the letters she wrote. I can bask in the reflected glow of her encouragement, and delight in Sendak’s appreciation of her. Sendak gives her credit for being a world-class encourager.

Book dedications are chock full of the names of those who encouraged, giving credit where credit is surely due. Barnabus deserves credit for the chunk of the Bible whose writers he encouraged. Those of us who do or make or write things would do well to acknowledge those who gave us courage to dare and do.

Thanks to Jim Coons and Rob Coons, my encouraging sons.

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