The Curse of Encouragement: 3 Ways to See It

cute pink pig frowns at the curse of encouragement

Last spring, I went to a dinner party where I barely knew anyone. As I walked in, I decided to be open-hearted and unguarded for a change. And for once, I would refrain from offering unsolicited encouragement.

I told myself: “Just listen to people and don’t share your much-needed insights or words of wisdom. Be a listener, not a fixer.”

As I filled my plate at the kitchen island, I scanned the surrounding sea of faces. A woman whom I had met in the foyer stood alone in a corner. I crossed the floor towards her to save us both from an awkward solitude.

“Hey, Annie, how do you spend your time?” I said, jamming a fork into my macaroni and cheese.

“Oh, hey, well, I own a dog walking business,” she said between chews.

“Wow, I bet that keeps you busy!” I eyed my fried chicken.

“Yes.” She swallowed a mouthful of potato salad. “A friend suggested I get active again even though I’m in so much pain.”

I lifted my eyebrows. “Oh, what sort of pain?” I leaned in to hear her answer above the party hum. I was well-acquainted with the topic.

“Fibromyalgia.” She scrunched her nose and pushed some potato salad around with a plastic spoon.

Shoulder to the wall, I chewed my food, ruminating my choices. I could keep quiet, see if she’d elaborate. Or, I could share my knowledge and possibly alleviate her suffering. My experience with chronic pain has taught me many strategies for easing it.

I resolved to offer Annie a tiny gem from my storehouse of learning:

“I just read a book describing how chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, can be related to emotional triggers. Like anxiety and anger. Maybe you are dealing with more than pain.” I dangled the information like a jewel on a chain.

Annie put down her spoon, adding to the suspense with a sip of water. She swallowed. “I just keep moving and try not to notice it,” she said, angling away from me.

Gulp. Conversation over.

Looking Up

cute pink pig lifts snout at the curse of encouragement

I am a teacher and fixer by nature. First, I devour information relevant to my problems — and yours. After getting my fill, I digest and then share from my treasure chest of answers. I champ at the bit to help.

The conversation with Annie reminded me of Jesus’ message on casting pearls before swine:

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (ESV)
 — Matthew 7:6

It’s not that Annie was a pig. Her manners were perfectly southern. And she did not attack me. But I didn’t know what was on her plate. I offered a dainty morsel to a stranger who did not ask for a taste. She returned my “gift” with a cold shoulder.

In searching the wily web for other thoughts on the pearl thing, I found:

This is how you should view the things God has done in your life. You can’t put a price on what you have learned through your life experiences as you’ve walked with Him. Like precious pearls, those life lessons are inestimable in their value because they cost you something. They weren’t the result of shallow swimming. You had to go deep into God to obtain those spiritual treasures.

In other words: Don’t use personal epiphanies to enlighten others. Better to give your hard-earned cash to someone who asks for and can appreciate it.

The Odor of Judgment

My propensity to fix sets me squarely in the judge’s seat. The crime occurs when my good intentions are mixed with the intent to enlighten and convict. The resulting elixir stinks with the odor of judgment.

Jesus warns of this in that same passage in Matthew. He said I shouldn’t judge others because it will come back to haunt me. And He said I best discover my own blind spots before pointing out the possible flaws of others.

From my blind-spotted, all-knowing position, I have dropped many a pearl of wisdom on the heads of the piggies in my midst. Certain of what those swine need for improvement, I expect them to receive and assimilate my helpful, loving gifts.

 Instead, they stare at me as if I’m crazy.

 “Who made you the judge?” or “What do I do with this?”

Humiliating, when my investment returns crusted in mud.

A Pig in Pearls

Have you ever seen a pig in pearls?

I’m not talking Miss Piggy. Although her swinely swagger certainly helps with the picture.

Cook up a person with the gift of encouragement. Turn up the burner for bless-your-heart warmth. Stew and stir in some well-meaning conceit. Now add a dash of presumption and a twist of criticism and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

This compelling character says things like: “You can do better. Let me tell you how” and “I believe in you even if no one else does” and “Somewhere inside of you is a very kind person.”

That’s me. A boorish judge in costume jewelry. A purveyor of precious wisdom of the porcine persuasion.

Many times have I apologized for offering an indigestible tidbit of what I considered soul food, serving up gifts with hints of judgment.

For example, a relative of mine once caught my encouragement in his teeth. He spit it back at me and said, “I don’t enjoy being judged.”

His response shocked me. I had offered my words as a compliment, saying, “You have been so generous with your money and time this year. I think, deep in your heart, that is who you truly are.”

3 Ways to See It

Encouragement or judgment? Lovely or ugly? Depends on how you look at it. I’ve found 3 ways to consider this piggishness. Mine and yours—not that I’m judging.

  1. Sometimes it’s ugly. Keep your epiphanies and encouragements to yourself. Some people can’t receive what you have to give. Even if your intentions are pure, not everyone will recognize their beauty.
  2. Sometimes it’s lovely. Share your gems with people you know, people who love and trust you. They’ll recognize the value of your treasures, perhaps.
  3. Sometimes it’s a mishmash. Throw those epiphanies at your own risk but temper your tendencies with wisdom. Better to listen before fixing. Then, let it go and let them deal with it.

I can accept the way I am. A mixture of lovely and stinky. Cultured and coarse. Also, I have undoubtedly trampled precious pearls that well-wishers have offered me.

Picturing my next party, I see myself all dressed up and eating like a pig. I’ll keep my heart and mind open but my mouth shut. Unless someone wants to encourage me. Then I’ll say, “Pass the soul food, please.”

The Art of Compromise or The Compromise of Art

art of compromise

Gravity and Relativity

Out of the Grey lite. That’s what my husband Scott and I call Gravity, our fourth record. Actually, a fan came up to our CD table after a concert one night in 1995 and bestowed that description.

“I love all of your albums up to this point but this new one is more like Out of the Grey lite.”

Yikes! He was right.

Before recording Gravity, we’d written our ten songs and were ready to head into the studio. Monday morning, 10 AM downbeat. However, the Thursday before our scheduled session, the record label decided we didn’t have enough ‘radio-friendly’ songs.

What?

Scott and I dug in our heels for a short minute then went with the pressure to play the game. Over that weekend, we scrambled to write a few new songs with more pop appeal. Our producer, Charlie Peacock, helped us win approval by co-writing the songs, “When Love Comes to Life” and “Hope In Sight.”

Half of the songs and a lot of the production came out lacking what we thought of as Out of the Grey artistry. We did get some radio play, though.

At the end of the day, did we practice the art of compromise or did we compromise our art?

A Play on a Play

art of compromiseHave you seen the film, Bullets Over Broadway?

You could call it a play on a play. The story examines artistic integrity and how far an artist will go to protect and defend it—or lose it. It poses a question about the sometimes-dirty word compromise, asking if it has its place or if it is always reprehensible.

At the beginning of this 1994 release, David, a young playwright, tries to gather funds and cast members to perform his beloved work of art. Time constraints, human foibles, and money woes assail his stance on artistic integrity. At first, David stands his ground, refusing to give up control over his writing and his role as director. Nevertheless, when an underworld thug with the funds for production materializes and seems a godsend, David compromises. The catch of the money deal is that the gangster’s talentless girlfriend must play a small part.

After David softens his stance regarding talent and economics, taking the production money plus the girl, his agent leads him into other small compromises. As the play unfolds and rehearsals progress, David’s artistic integrity slips so far that he rewrites dialog at the behest of the manipulative lead actress. However, the playwright’s climactic sin is letting the goon who babysits the talentless young actress make changes in lines, scenes, and the plot. David recognizes that this mobster hitman is more talented than he. In the end, David is not an artist who is willing to stand by his original work.

This play about a play never reveals what the playwright’s play was actually about. We get the gist, though, that more drama, sex scandals, and realism are what the people want. Are the characters speaking our language? Does the plot mirror our own struggles? Have we left off the lofty and abstract so that the crowd can get the message point blank? Bullets fly at movie’s end when the story descends into an action-filled thriller.

Popular Art

The population at large loves what it can enjoy and comprehend without extra effort. As a pop music snob, I pooh-pooh much of the stuff that seems all fluff. I prefer a more complicated theme than, say, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Having said that, I’m aware that other types of music-lovers wouldn’t call pop music ‘art’ at all.

To be sure, inside a fine art gallery, I might lift my eyebrows at the abstract and inaccessible. Impatient and ignorant, I don’t take the time to find the deeper meaning, moving further along the wall in search of served-up messages. When it comes to Art, I dig in my heels in relative places, drawing my own particular lines in the sand.

For example, I have written some artistically obscure songs like, “Becoming,” not caring whether anyone heard them or at least not worried that some might miss its message. However, I have certainly written songs with radio play in mind. Economic forces drove my compromise in the form of pressure from the record company and the mortgage company. One argument for concession goes something like this: if some of my art compromises its beauty for popularity sake, it will expose my more artistic pieces to a wider audience.

Mass Appeal

Many an Out of the Grey fan found us first on the radio. Before Gravity, our popularity had been growing. A lot of people told us they liked our fresh, left-of-center sound. Record sales were adding up and we wanted to capitalize on the momentum. It’s an old story.

art of compromise

The pressure to compromise can sideline even the best of intentions. When something good gets more popular, getting more becomes the modus operandi. For example, in the 1990s, Starbucks was just a cool cafe on the west coast. Scott and I had to mail-order their exotic blends and dark roasts. Nowadays, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, the McDonald’s of coffee some say. Compromising quality for quantity some complain.

However, mass-appeal has its appeal. It allows me to find a cheap knock-off of the expensive version of something or other I could otherwise not afford to purchase. As Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada about the origin of the color of her cheap cerulean blue sweater, so I should take a lesson and remember that design is a gift with a steep price.

Mob Mentality

I am an artistic snob when I care to be and part of the mob when I don’t. If I don’t sink my toes into certain artistic fields of expression, I am tempted to pass by quickly with a quick judgment. I may think you are crazy if you only buy a carefully curated olive oil while you may drop your jaw at me for spending so much time choosing between “a” or “the” in a song lyric. You may secretly judge my mall clothes as fashion mongrels while I am arguing internally that you can’t possibly enjoy the ‘music’ of Florida Georgia Line.

art of compromise

From Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling to Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, with so many in between, who decides what is good art or bad, high quality or low? Certainly, mass appeal isn’t a consistent measuring stick because watered-down art proliferates even as the cream rises to the top.

Relative Obscurity

Positively speaking, compromise is a humbled move toward peace. It need not always be an act of artistic cowardice.

What’s my point? Humility, I guess. If pride in my fine taste stiffens my stance in one corner of the rug, someone will surely pull it out from under my feet with revelations of what I am missing. More than likely, what appeals to you has merits I haven’t investigated. Maybe you love every song and sound on Gravity. I’m glad if you do!

In keeping my knees unlocked and soft, I can walk your way and experience the view from your side of the room. You can show me what I’ve missed in Picasso and I can point out the genius of Sting. We can meet at Starbucks, maybe stop to shop at the mall, and go from there.

Out of the Grey’s fan base fell off sharply after the release of Gravity. Our follow-up, See Inside, never found the listeners we thought it deserved. Scott and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d held our ground on how we wanted to shape our sound. The question will remain: does gravity suck or is it just a natural force that no artist can escape? The answer lies in the ears of the beholder. The rest is left to relative obscurity.

Get Busy Living

My husband and I are supposed to go out with friends tonight.

The restaurant will be crowded.

We will stand cramped in the doorway for half an hour waiting for a table.

We will be a group of shouting people from start to finish, trying to arch our words across the din and dinner.

Chunky wooden tables surrounded by thick-legged chairs that stall and stutter along the sticky floor will control our bodies and conversation.

The food will be heavy. I will eat enough to weigh me down for a day or two.

I will have snippets of connection with the 2 people closest to me on my tiny island in a sea of sound. The drinks will mix their muddling into the evening about one hour in.

Soon after, the laughter and leaning-in to catch the bouncing chatter around the rectangular table will wear me out. I will begin to stare as if in trance, missing the person’s words on which I am trying to focus.

Later tonight, I will fall into bed, my ears ringing, my mind whirling with everything said.


Why would I want to subject myself to this situation?

I could decline and say, “some other time.”

But I don’t, we won’t. Why not?

Well, because they are our people.

Meeting at a place.

Eating, drinking, relating, connecting.

It’s what we do.

If we didn’t, we’d be dead.

As my husband just said, life is flying by. Life is happening now.

At our age, or maybe any age, it’s almost over all the time.

Some other time is not a given.

So better get busy living.

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