40 Years in the Desert

I grew up in a praise desert. My people, my folks, aunts, uncles, grandparents, didn’t indulge in compliments or praise. I wouldn’t say they never praised anyone; it was just a rare, rare thing like that flower that only blooms once every ten years. The bloom is so astonishing that people take their glasses off and rub their eyes, thinking did I really see that?

Many years ago, a well-known expert in addiction treatment, here as part of a major national foundation’s site visit to determine whether Milwaukee would obtain a large multi-year drug prevention grant, leaned over and whispered to me, “I’m so proud of you.” I was in my mid-forties at the time, responsible for writing the grant proposal that made the short list, orchestrator of the site visit with its dozens of moving parts and the ordering around of people several pay grades higher than me; I was, in essence, a big girl, a tough cookie. So when the good doctor said this to me, it was a big surprise and an embarrassment when my eyes filled with tears.

Good grief, girl, I thought. Is this the first time somebody said they were proud of you? Yes. I guess it was.

There is something about praise minimalism that I like. Everything isn’t exceptional, much is ordinary. I like a high bar for praise although I wish my own parents had lowered theirs a rung or two. Still, the recognition of my praise deprivation, made so apparent by my reaction to the doctor’s simple sentence, has pushed me to be a more praise-conscious person.

I have passed on the words “I’m so proud of you” many times. Sometimes I hesitate, thinking the person will think it condescending or patronizing. But then I figure other people are probably as hungry for praise as I didn’t know I was. I’m spare with my praise, not cheap. Something must truly be praiseworthy.

After my father died, I found a program for his 60th high school reunion. He’d sent them an update about his life which was published in a little newsletter insert. He wrote about me, how I’d gotten a Ph.D. and ran my own business. I stood and stared at the paper. He had been proud of me. I probably should have known that. But I didn’t. I wish he had told me.

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