“Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” ~Barry Lopez
Stories. They are powerful things. They govern how we experience the world, how we interpret things that happen to us, how we see one another, how we see ourselves. Every bit of meaning we assign to anything—including our assessment of it being good or bad—is a story that is based on other stories. There is nothing that we think that is not a story that is fueled by other stories.
And the most amazing thing about all of this is that we are generally unaware of the content of all of these stories that are determining our experience of our lives. We think that we are just seeing reality as it is when we are really only seeing the version that fits with the stories we have.
Perhaps this is part of the trouble with encouragement that I have been exploring these past few days. Encouragement really means to give courage or confidence to another, although this is often done by offering praise or compliments based on the person’s character or on previous actions that indicate our belief in that person’s talent, ability, or other traits that the person currently doubts. I’ve always seen it as expressing faith in a person who is having a hard time having faith in herself (or himself) in that moment. But this is my story because it is what I want from others when I am discouraged. It’s not their story.
When I remind someone of their past successes, tell them that I believe in them, or compliment them on some trait that I find admirable, I am engaging in my story that the other person wants to feel courageous or self-confident. I am assuming that my confidence in them is desirable to them. But that is only my story. It may well be that they would prefer to remain unconfident and uncourageous because that would fit their story better.
Compassion would be allowing that person to stay within their own story without imposing mine on them. This means that compassion means NOT offering encouragement.
I can ask the other person whether there is any support that they would like from me, of course. If they specifically request encouragement, then it would be appropriate to give it. If they do not, then the best thing I can do is to refrain, even if that still feels counter-intuitive to me. But their story is all that matters for their experience; mine is irrelevant.
This turns my story about encouragement completely on its head. It’s going to take me a little more time to wrap my head around this one—not just from the perspective of offering encouragement to others, but also in my desire to have it offered to me. If I am not comfortable directly asking for praise from someone (and I can’t even in my wildest dreams ever imagine being comfortable enough to do that), then I need to stop hoping to get it from anyone. That’s going to be a big shift in my story!
This also means that I need to reconsider my recent understanding of what I am meant to offer the world as being encouragement, hope, and safe space. Perhaps all I have to offer is the sharing of my own story in the hope that it will give those who want it the hope that comes from knowing they are not alone in the struggles of life. It’s not that my story is all that special or even very interesting, but my struggles with my story and my willingness to share those struggles may encourage others who want to wrestle with their own stories in similar ways. (I spent a long time trying to come up with a suitable synonym for “encourage” in that last sentence, but I was obviously not successful. I clearly need to expand my vocabulary as I expand my story!)
So, it’s back to the drawing board to figure out what it is I am really meant to be in this world, which will dictate what it is that I have to give. In the meantime, I need to work on re-writing my story in this area to back away from seeing encouragement as an act of compassion. Instead, I need to learn to ask people whether they want my support. If so, then I ask what kind of support they need to determine whether it’s something I have to give, making sure that I give only what is asked for. I think this will be a big help to many of my relationships, and I’m sure this will generate big sighs of relief all around as I get the hang of this new pattern. (What an encouraging thought!)
Most importantly, I can learn to give that encouragement that others don’t want to the one person who desperately wants it: ME! Maybe that’s what I should have been doing all along.
A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a fragile and vulnerable place to be, so I am committed to keeping this a safe place for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight are not welcome here and will be deleted.