“Everything a Compliment” by Mark W. Harris
March 2, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”
The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me, as if he were acquainted with the tool.
Reading –from Charming Billy by Alice McDermott
(Charming Billy is Billy Lynch, and this novel begins with his death. After Billy’s funeral, the Monsignor is visiting the family home. The narrator is the daughter of Billy’s best friend, Dennis)
Downstairs, the priest had everyone in the living room laughing softly, teacups and saucers on their knees. The coffee table now held a plate of Dan Lynch’s bakery cookies and another of small tea sandwiches . . . . Although he sat in one corner of the couch, legs crossed casually, thighs strain against the black fabric of his pants, elbow-up over the plastic covered armrest, the Monsignor was the center of everyone’s attention. He had been recalling Billy. A Holy Name Society meeting and the speaker going on for so long about the significance of the Pascal feast that Billy had leaned over and whispered into the Monsignor’s ear that the hind leg of the Lamb of God with a little mint jelly sounded good to him.
When Maeve descended the stairs a few minutes later, her sister-in-law behind her like a handmaiden, everyone stood as if for a meeting of dignitaries. Maeve put both her hands out for the priest and the priest stepped toward her easily, confidently like an expert, a pro, like a slugger going to the plate or a surgeon to the operating table, a renowned authority rising for his closing arguments. We all felt it, felt the tremendous sense of relief that we finally had among us someone who knew what he was doing.
“How are you, Maeve, my dear?” the priest said taking her hands . . . with perfect gentleness and an understanding that was bolstered. . .by his utter faith that death was not what we believed it to be tonight, not at all. He apologized for not having made it to the funeral this morning, he’d been called to the hospital (another soul rising, he implied) but she had been in his prayers all day long. “How are you, then?” he said, and once again Maeve put a tissue to her eyes and began to cry… “I thought I heard him coming in,” she said. “Earlier this evening.” And he nodded, expert in these matters, letting her speak. . . . “Gone, Father” she said. The terror of it struck her then. His life was over. Hers was not.
The priest nodded as she spoke. Everything in his face and his manner said he knew. He knew what she said, wanted to say, would say next. He had sat like this, his manner said, with so many other widows, so many times before. When he finally replied it was with an authority that superseded all our experience of Billy . . . He was like a physician carrying reports to a waiting family, suddenly more expert than any of them about the dying man. More expert, everything in the priest’s gracious manner seemed to say, because only he understood that death was nothing that it seemed to be, to us, tonight. “Not over, Maeve,” he said softly, scolding her, but fondly, gentle. “we are not abandoned, Maeve,” he said. “You know that.” . . .
Maeve lifted her head but did not raise her eyes. You could see in the stubborn set of her jaw that it was not a figurative life that she wanted for Billy at this moment, but a literal one, his literal presence, coming in with the dog, as she dozed, opening the cookie jar where they kept the dog biscuits, hanging the chain on the hook by the back door. Their life together, even as it was, simply going on. . . .
“It’s a terrible thing, Father,” Maeve said softly, her chin raised, her eyes cast down. “To come this far in life only to find that nothing you’ve felt has made any difference.” A sigh, quickly stifled, seemed to come from the women in the room. The priest raised his hand as if to quiet them. “Listen to me,” he said patiently, “listen now.” He waited until she had raised her eyes, her expression showing him, showing us all, that she would not be convinced. “We could all tell ourselves tonight that we didn’t do enough, Maeve. I had the thought myself when Dennis called me the other day, and told me Billy was gone. And how they found him. I thought Dear Lord, what could I have done?” . . .
“Everything you felt, everything you did for Billy mattered, regardless of how it turned out.” He bent his head a little to catch her downcast eyes. “I’m not kidding you about this, Maeve.” He said, “I’m not making this up.” He gripped both her hands in his, lifted them slightly. “You must believe this, “ he whispered. . . .
She did not return his gaze. “I suppose I do, “ she said. . . .
Dan Lynch searched his pockets and then pulled out a large handkerchief and wiped both his eyes with it. . . . I turned to gaze at my father, who stood just behind me, and saw some trace of the same look he had worn in the car today: that old annoyance, nearly trivialized by time. Or perhaps something troublesome, nearly healed. It was either the near-triumph of faith or the nearly liberating letting go of it. He looked down at me and nodded, as if I should attend to what the Monsignor was saying, as if how his own experience, or age, excused him from the discourse, but I should attend.
A week ago yesterday, I conducted a funeral service for a 100 year old woman named Cora. I never met Cora, but I was recruited because this unchurched family needed a Protestant minister, and I fit the bill. Cora never married, and had no children, but she was apparently a delightful person who had a long work life, a close relationship with her sister, and adored countless great nephews and nieces. It was my charge to find out enough about her to compose a eulogy. This is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but over the course of a long ministry I have a fair amount of experience writing them. Yet I still worry about saying the wrong thing, such as describing a recluse as a socialite or vice versa, or worse failing to acknowledge a painful truth out of the deceased person’s past that the family member I spoke to neglected to mention. But in this case, I kept probing the family member, I think to the point of exasperation, until he finally said something like, you don’t need any more than this, do you? These kinds of services are often a litany of all the good things about a person with few disparaging words. In her particular case, I thought of the obvious. I wondered if the deceased had heard all these wonderful things about herself during her lifetime. Hopefully her family told her how loving she was, or her employer rewarded her loyalty with acclaim. Did she receive the personal compliments she deserved?
Abraham Lincoln once remarked, “Everybody likes a compliment.” But some times they are hard to come by. This was true in the family I grew up in. Perhaps it was because it was a male dominated household, but it felt like compliments were only given in a kind of backhanded way. It was affirmation by insult for the men. So for instance, if I tried to dress up and wear some clothes that were stylish or hip, my brother would always comment, “what are you, a queer?” One can see this pattern in the current discussion taking place in the National Football League, where the bullying tactics of a Miami Dolphin linemen caused a teammate to quit the team, and the league is arguing over how punishment might be instituted for abusive language. Yet it is complicated when some players see an abusive word as a term of endearment, and others see it as an insult. What I endured was mild compared to author Gary Shteyngart, whose memoir was recently reviewed in the New York Times. The title of the book is what is mother called him, Little Failure, and his father called him Snotty. This continued in adulthood, too, as his father remarked over lunch once, “I read that you and your novels will soon be forgotten.” These are not the kind of supportive compliments we would hope to receive from our families to boost confidence.
Conversely, even paradoxically, I also grew up with a philosophy, probably inculcated by my mother, that if you can’t say something good, then you don’t say anything. In other words, if you are going to hurt someone’s feelings by being honest, then you simply don’t speak. You never say something like “your outfit is okay, but those shoes are hideous” or “I don’t care for rabbit stew.” Instead you say, “you look fine,” or “I’ve already eaten,” even if you are starving. As a child I had to learn that certain behaviors are code for the affirmation we may seek. For instance, if three teenage boys sit down to a meal and act like pigs at a trough, then you don’t need to hear, “This is an excellent meal, Mom. You are a great cook,” because their behavior speaks volumes, even if the manners are lacking. My sons are more direct about meals they don’t like than was true in my family of origin, as we had to be reticent about expressing an honest, but negative opinion. The universal response that was code for “I don’t like this meal,” was the phrase, “It’s different.” While this could be construed to mean, It is something new and I am considering whether I like it, I think it became fairly obvious when my mother said this that she was really gagging under her breath. This reminds me of a story we often retell about Andrea’s sister and mother being at our house when I proclaimed that Andrea was my favorite cook. Having seen and tasted examples of dishes with eggplant or sweet potato soup, they suddenly seemed shocked. Andrea? They couldn’t think of anything good to say. Perhaps part of parceling out compliments depends upon one’s own sense of preference and taste.
Compliments are often backhanded, even if they don’t quite reach the level of insult that I experienced growing up. Take the way people respond to our chosen Unitarian Universalist faith. While we may love its freedom and openness, others are often suspect. Even those who seem to compliment us for choosing such a culturally relevant faith often compliment our choice by stating something like, “that’s the good religion, you don’t believe in anything.” Maybe it is a slight improvement when they say, you are the cool religion that teaches about sex instead of religion, right? Some of this is depicted in Elizabeth Strout’s most recent novel, The Burgess Boys. In the story, Bob Burgess’ second wife is a Unitarian minister. Strout writes, “My mother did not like Unitarians; she thought they were atheists who didn’t want to be left out of the fun of Christmas.” Yet certain things trump others, and in Bob’s case the Unitarian minister Margaret was from Maine, as was Bob’s mother. That made it okay, while Bob’s brother Jim, had married, the mother said, “that snob from Connecticut.” In my own case, my parents, but especially my father, did not like the fact that I was a UU, and never complimented me on my choice of faith, but he was so proud that he had a son who became a minister, it did not matter. This trumped all. This is true in some other families, too. The parents may be evangelical, but they are happy that their children are part of any church, even the Godless Unitarian one.
Like my sermon, the novel Charming Billy by Alice McDermott begins with a funeral. Billy Lynch has been a fixture in his Bronx working class Irish community. At the funeral reception organized by his wife Maeve, people say wonderful things about his charming nature. Mickey Quinn proclaims, “If you knew Billy at all . . . then you loved him. He was just that type of guy.” The compliments roll on – “He had the sweetest nature . . .He found a way to like everyone. He always found something good to say, or something funny.” But charming Billy also drank himself to death. Some said it was that girl Eva, who Billy loved, but she had to go back to Ireland to see her parents. He sent money to bring her back to New York to get married, but then she tragically died in Ireland. Or did she? On the day of Billy’s funeral, his best friend Dennis confesses that it has been a lie. She lived and married someone else, using Billy’s money to open a gas station with him. Did Billy’s life become emotionally lost due to this devastating turn of events? How much did everyone believe a romantic myth about his life? Did he want to feel the sympathy of others for being brokenhearted rather than their scorn for being a fool? Who bears responsibility for his death – Eva, his friends for only affirming his charm, his own choices to drink, or the disease? Perhaps it can never be pinned down, and like the compliments about Billy, maybe it is that life turns both ways. We need both great courage to live through all the difficult trials of life, and also a bit of delusion to help us accept that pain.
We see this in the visit by the priest to the family home, which you heard in the reading. He is trying to soothe their pain with his well practiced pastoral touch, and there is solace present in this expression of comforting faith. At the same time, there is also a realization that there is also a letting go of a faith that has covered up the truth of life’s loss and pain. Dennis’ daughter, the narrator of the book sums up the response to the priest that she sees in her father’s face. “It was either the near triumph of faith, or the nearly liberating letting go of it.” It is the same ambiguity that is present in the charm of Billy’s manner and love, and charisma in connecting to people, that is complemented by the sadness of what has happened to him, not only the mythic event with Eva, but the ultimate destruction of his soul in drink.
I thought of this paradox in the ambiguity of compliments that are given when a person is fishing for something in return. Compliments are used as a vehicle for delusion to achieve a desired result, but despite the delusion, the compliments do achieve a salutory effect.. We used to call it brown nosing in school. When I was in college I took Spanish as a freshman and feared that I would fail it. We had heard that the professor, whom we called Senorita Garcelon, whose last name graced our football field, thanks to her father, loved it when football players went to see her and personally implored her to help them. Hoping I could receive some assistance, I dutifully went and groveled at her feet telling her everything I could muster about how much I enjoyed her class, and what an outstanding teacher she was. And at the end of the year, I passed. Did my compliments pay off? This recollection came to me this fall when one of my students came to me and said, “You are incredible, you have a brain like an encyclopedia.” She prefaced her comments with an aside that she was not trying to get on my good side, but I wondered, was she fishing for a grade, as I did so long ago, or did she just want to tell me how much she loved the class? Sometimes a suspect motive achieves a positive result. Even if it was false pretence, it personalized our relationship because I got to know her, and it still made me feel wonderful.
What is interesting is that I did not especially reward her, but did take great joy in her comments about my teaching skills and knowledge. As I said in the newsletter, I am a devotee of the PBS series, Downton Abbey. The latest season has just concluded. Many of my favorite lines come from the Countess Violet, played by Maggie Smith. In the last episode, the following exchange took place between her and Mrs Crawley. Isobel says, “You take everything as a compliment.” And Violet responds, “I advise you to do the same. It saves many an awkward moment.” At first, this might seem like something a stuffy British aristocrat would say because they are only concerned with appearances, and not with truth. They do not want to have awkward moments in public conversation, and so there is never an awkward time when you feel slighted or insulted. If someone says don’t come to an event, you take it to mean you would be bored, not that you are boring. Yet would you want to be told you are boring? And who is to say, when it is only someone’s individual preference. I heard the idea of always taking everything as a compliment differently, especially as someone who always wished a family member had offered some compliments so long ago.
The previous funeral service I conducted before Cora’s was for a spiritualist minister. Spiritualists communicate with the dead. In this case, some of the people participating in the service believed the deceased was in the room with us, hearing all those nice compliments we made about him. What if we spoke more of those compliments to the living, or what if we took everything as a compliment? Violet is saying she is going to use everything as a compliment. So if someone says she eats like a cow, she would take it to mean, “yes, I do like to ruminate on things.” Moreover, we would come to see that other people are often trying to tell us how much we mean to them. When they come up to tell us how much they appreciate what we have given them, perhaps they are not trying to ingratiate themselves to us for a good grade or later payback. Maybe they just want to say thank you and I appreciate you. This class means a lot to me. I am learning a lot. It helps form my faith. It gives me a sense of the great tradition I stand on, and I value it so much more. I can now teach it to others, too. And once we understand that the person is not out to get something from us, or envies us, but merely wants to appreciate us, perhaps we would understand more how much we have to offer. We have skills and talents, and knowledge. And so we would hear those compliments, and feel better about ourselves, and it would help us speak complimentary words to others once we have heard them reverberate in our own ears. We have listened. And when we listen, and see another, we realize they need to hear some compliments, too. They want to hear how hard they’ve worked, or what they contributed, or how charming they are, or what good cooks they are, or merely an acknowledgement that they are doing the best they can. Then when we all start complimenting each other we all feel a little better about what we are contributing, and then we can even be more honest and open about concerns we have.
The central truth about “everything a compliment” is that everybody needs to hear about and be reminded of their value. In my file cabinets I have a compliment folder. Whenever anyone writes a thank you to me for a good job, I keep it, and then when it feels like I am not hearing compliments much, I take the file out, and review all those affirming words. It’s good for the soul. We need to hear a compliment and we need to give compliments to everyone who teaches us, or helps us or sacrifices for the institutions we love.
Snow White is the grand myth of compliment. Snow White, as you remember, is a beauty, but she has this step mother, the new Queen, who looks in the mirror and asks, “mirror who is the most beautiful?” For a time the mirror, which never lies, “says you are the fairest.” This is the utmost compliment. But then one day, the mirror says “lady, you are lovely, but Snow White is even more fair.” The step mother was getting old, and feared losing her position as most beautiful. Envy causes her to want to want to do away with Snow White. In the meantime Snow White has met the seven dwarfs. She takes care of them, but the wicked Queen comes and tries to murder her (twice). Finally Snow White swallows a poisoned apple, and lies asleep in a glass coffin. What can redeem her? Well, finally the prince comes, and as the servants carry the coffin away, they stumble on some roots. The tremor caused by the stumbling causes the piece of poisoned apple to dislodge from Snow White’s throat, and she is revived. Soon thereafter she is united with the prince, and the step mother meets her fate wearing some shoes too hot for comfort. The story reminds us that envy makes us feel bad about ourselves, and causes hatred for another. We are separated from one another when we fail to give compliments, and only want something the other has. We take, but we don’t give back with a compliment. Because we only want the compliments for ourselves, we cannot grant them to another. We cannot say you are beautiful, or you have worked hard. If we cannot be happy for another, we can never be connected to them. And what bring us back in relationship, and gives us love? The stumbling tremor brings her back to life. I am redeemed by falling down, because I know I cannot live without getting and giving affirmation. Life returns when I fall down because I am not perfect, and will fall down, and thus need you to speak your admiration for me, just as I need to speak it to you, to keep each other from stumbling, and to give each other life and love, in this great struggle to be human
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.