I’ve received a text message this week from an organisation that I do some work for. Here is what it said:
We are really impressed by your past experience and your background. We firmly believe that you are a valuable asset to our college.
It reminded me of another email I received a few months ago from another organisation I was doing some work for. The email began
Thanks again for your excellent sample chapter- we were really impressed with how well you understood the brief and the quality of your content.
I started to think about my previous job, and I tried to remember the last time someone in my previous job told me they were impressed with my work. I’m sorry to say I can’t remember when that happened. Here in my new job, I’ve heard it twice in the last three months. It made me feel quite sad. I’m thinking about the teachers who have just voted to strike in the UK and how undervalued they are. I was part of the union that has voted to strike and would have voted with the 90%.
I am also currently involved in “The 40-day Journey with Julian of Norwich” with the Friends of Julian of Norwich. In this last month we have been praying with Day 13 to Day 16 of the journey and on Day 15 the reading from Julian says:
God also showed me that sin is no shame but honour to us… shame is no more in the bliss of heaven – for there the tokens of sin are turned into owners.40 day Journey with Julian of Norwich, edited Lisa E. Dahill
As all these thoughts swirled around my brain I found myself thinking of the feeling of not being good enough and of spiritual desolation. I found myself thinking of the critical voices, those voices that tell us that we are worthless, unworthy, it’s all our fault: the “mea culpa” that has us feeling guilty and ashamed.
What does it feel like when someone tells us that they are impressed by something we have done? Is the temptation to dismiss what has been said? After all, no one likes a show off. It may be false humility.
In the first week of the Spiritual Exercises by St Ignatius of Loyola the focus of the prayer is sin: our own personal sin, original sin, the sin of the world: and the grace of the first week that we asked for at the beginning of prayer is for sorrow for our sins. Importantly, the First Week of the Exercises comes after the Principle and Foundation, and it is important to enter the first week knowing that we are loved by God. How else could we bear shame of our sinfulness?
How does it feel in the Principal and Foundation when we experience ourselves to be loved by God? Julian very famously talks about the hazelnut and how in her visions or showings she saw three properties in the hazelnut:
The first is that God made it, the second is that He loves it, and the third is that God preserves it.Revelations of Divine Love: Julian of Norwich
I remember one day in school, in one of the after-school training sessions, there was a statement on a piece of paper which linked negative judgments by Ofsted with a teacher feeling personal shame. It made me feel very angry. I know for me personally being a perfectionist, it is uncomfortable to get things wrong, but I would stop short of declaring that a reason to feel ashamed. I might also argue that the person or organisation making the judgement may not necessarily be accurate or may have their own agenda or priorities that the teacher may not agree with.
Of course, feeling proud when someone tells you they are impressed may simply be the opposite side of the same coin: a point to be cautious of. Pride itself, for its own sake, can also get in the way.
So, what is the balance? Because self-denigration, feeling ashamed in response to unjustified criticism, or maybe even justified criticism from self-appointed judges, may be inverted pride.
The grace of the first week of The Exercises is key: it is to know ourselves as loved sinners, to hold the tension between imperfections and the harm that we may do, the lack of love in our hearts, the lack of virtue, generosity, magnanimity: to hold it in one hand and God’s love of us in the other.
Is it good to accept compliments? To feel good when people tell us they are impressed? I would say of course: when someone recognises and appreciates our gifts it allows us to recognise and appreciates the gifts that we have been given. We may have done our best job with the work we were doing, and we know our work is appreciated. That is a satisfaction in doing the work regardless of any external reward. It’s like walking outside into the mountains and exclaiming how beautiful it is to God; an appreciation of the work, an expression of the appreciation, it is to praise God. It is to give glory to God when we are exclaiming how impressed we are with God’s work. When we allow someone else to express their appreciation of our work, it connects us to our giftedness, the abilities and talents we have received from God and that we have put them to use in the service of others.
In The Spiritual Exercises in the fourth point of the Contemplation to Attain Love, Saint Ignatius says:
This is to consider all blessings and gifts as descending from above.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
The danger of modesty or false humility is that it denies those gifts, diminishes them, makes them as nothing: unimportant. Sure, there is a danger in arrogance and pride when we can think of ourselves as the big, “I am” because people are impressed with us, but, as one of the tutors on my spirituality course said several times:
We can become attached to our smallness.
There are many “haters” out there in the world, on social media, on television, in the newspapers. There is criticism to be found everywhere, of anyone and everyone; a lynch mob mentality. It’s all around. It is very easy to become bogged down in fear anger, negativity: to feel a lack of faith, hope and love. Such hopelessness and fear are spiritual desolation. Perhaps we need to complement each other more, not falsely, but genuine heartfelt compliments. If we’re impressed say we’re impressed. If someone tells us that they are impressed to accept that acknowledgement of our gifts and for ourselves to also acknowledge those gifts and expressed gratitude for them.
So, the next time you are impressed with someone, tell them. Acknowledge their giftedness out loud so they can hear it and own it too. And when someone complements you on your gifts, accept it, don’t dismiss it: accept it and than God for the gifts He so generously bestows.