Several weeks ago, as I was boldly making my way home post-blizzard (a thorough calorie-burning workout actually when you lift your legs through a couple feet of snow), I heard a car honk. The driver was an acquaintance who insisted I accept a ride. I figured I shouldn’t deprive her of an opportunity to do a mitzvah – and my feet were soaking wet through my boots – so I accepted.
I would use her real name but “Fruma” is very modest and I don’t think she would want her good deeds published, for years ago she lived on the same floor as my mother, whom we had moved into an apartment due to her being paralyzed by a stroke and could no longer navigate the steps in her house.
I told Fruma how much I had appreciated her always greeting my mother (many people avoided her as if strokes were contagious and pretended to not see her). She often would tell my mother how much she enjoyed my columns in The Jewish Press. The words of praise would literally “gladden her heart” and provide a psychological boost at a time when my formerly fiercely independent, Holocaust survivor mother so needed one.
Fruma brushed aside my thanks, and insisted that compliments should be given when warranted, and that she had heard that withholding praise and remaining silent, could be considered a sin.
I was intrigued by what Fruma said. It wasn’t enough to refrain from being critical or demeaning to avoid lashon hara, but not giving a deserved and sincere compliment (not to be confused with false, fawning flattery) seemingly was a form of it as well.
Tragically, there are parents, spouses, siblings, teachers, bosses, etc., who chronically denigrate, put down, malign and demonize those who look up to them to build them up emotionally. For these hapless individuals living in a “desert” of negativity, a word of praise, an acknowledgment of a job well done, are like precious drops of water in a parched throat. It can be life-enhancing.
I have an accomplished friend who is careful to maintain a healthy weight and works out several times a week – yet she cannot accept a compliment. She feels like a fraud. If told she looks good, she’ll insist, “the dress is too tight,” “or not the right color.” She admits that she is frustrated by her inability to simply say, “thank you.” She cannot accept the words as being true. At times she even believes the praise is sarcastic. Intellectually she knows she does look great, but emotionally in her soul, there is a foundation of doubt that was cemented over her formative years by verbal bricks of denigration, dismissiveness and ridicule.
She confided that her parents constantly compared her to friends who had higher grades, or were more talented, or popular. She tried to excel, pushing herself to “do better” but whatever she achieved, was not good enough.
Imagine, an arm that is lightly tapped by a twig, several times a day. Day after day. There is no damage the first few times, but then a welt will appear and fade, until with more pressure, the welt will become a bruise, and be sore. With continued tapping, the pain will increase, and at some point, that same light tap will break the skin, and could cause life-altering damage.
Either there will be chronic pain, or the area will become numb. I know of Holocaust survivors and those who endured severe emotional or mental trauma are shut down and go through life like robots who know the “script” of life but don’t feel it. They just perform.
A friend told me how she cannot get excited when her grandchildren visit, shrieking with glee when they enter, like many of her friends do. Her reaction is much more subdued. She hugs them, because that’s what you do.
Sadly, there are “Hamans” in our community oozing with negativity – who only see flaws in everyone – except of course in themselves – and don’t hesitate to berate and denigrate because they tend to have an extremely high opinion of themselves – often not based in reality. They are delusional narcissists.
It is so fitting that Rachel Imeinu was the ancestress of Mordechai and Queen Esther. She was the polar opposite of a narcissist. She spared her sister Leah from deep shame by “validating” her value, and enhancing it by her action of giving Leah the code words she shared with her chosson, enabling Leah to be Yaacov’s first wife.
Rachel also shows extreme unselfishness by her constant crying over the plight of her exiled, battered “step children” from the tribes of Yehuda and Levi – today’s Jews. She could criticize them, pointing out they are the “authors of their own misfortune” by their lack of faith and idols worship and “have gotten what they deserved,” but instead she no doubt praises them to Hashem for being steadfast in their emunah and bitachon over the centuries, and even dying al kiddush Hashem. Rachel compliments and is full of lashon hatov for the children of Yaacov as she petitions our Heavenly Father to have mercy and rescue us.
We need to emulate Rachel, and train ourselves to compliment when warranted, and be gentle in our criticisms. Thus we will fortify our children with healthy self-esteem and bestow a lifelong sense of worthiness that will strengthen their mental and physical well-being and make them resistant to the insidious machinations of Amalek.