When he was about six, my son found his calling in life. “I’m going to be an Encourager,” he announced. “People need Encouragers.”
He’s diversified a bit since then, but remains an actively encouraging person, and his insight continues to carry a lot of weight in this family. As is true of any worthwhile practice, encouragement doesn’t always come easily, and there are a number of traps we individually, and as a family, have to avoid. Correction, for example, does come quite easily and with weighty authority, insisting that identification of mistakes or mistaken opinions must be delivered for the good of the mistaken party, the family, and, I guess,the universe. Advice springs to the tongue with equal velocity, with the same menu of justification, and is generally not entirely appreciated, particularly if no advice has been solicited. Finally, although delivered with the best possible intentions and born of caution, recitation of unanticipated costs, probable embarrassment, and possible disasters can drive a stake through the heart of any proposed endeavor.
The use of the phrase, “through the heart” is deliberate, for encouragement signifies both the lending of courage, and the recognition that courage is found in the heart. We are heartened by encouragement, disheartened by discouragement; what task could be more significant than responding to the heart of a friend’s aspirations? It’s probably unnecessary to note that the word “aspire” derives from an old French word meaning “to breathe”; our most deeply felt aspirations are as important as breath itself.
I appreciate the good work done by Brené Brown, a writer and public speaker whose work on vulnerability, shame, and courage is unfailingly inspirational. I particularly appreciate her contention that ordinary courage is needed to speak from the heart.
“The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” – Brené Brown
Encouragement gives permission to tell all one’s heart, to speak of the deepest longings, and, as Brown has made clear, to become vulnerable. I think the enduring stories are all stories in which the central character summons the courage to become fully vulnerable. What mythologists call The Hero’s Journey, tales as curiously divergent as The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, as The Odyssey and Star Wars: A New Hope, ask an ordinary, uninitiated, untested person to take on tasks that leave them entirely vulnerable, tasks they could not complete without a mentor or guide.
The journey is not well served when others simply nod and stand back; even ordinary courage needs more help than that. Encouragement demands that we listen for the longing a friend is reluctant to speak, longing that may not emerge fully formed or well-shaped. Telling the heart’s story is often messy and even contradictory; it emerges in incomplete sentences and with deflecting apology. We have to work to find the longing behind the throw-away lines:
“Someday…” “If I could only …” “Sometimes I feel…”
Telling all one’s heart is to leap into danger; vulnerability and shame are constant watch dogs keeping us from believing that we deserve our own story, and yet, if we don’t tell our story, that story will not be told. We need encouragers, people willing to sit with our discomfort in speaking of that which we long to do or to have.
I remember a poster that was popular for some time; for all I know, it’s still stuck on walls somewhere today. A kitten dangles from a curtain, its claws barely holding on to the cloth. The text reads, “Hang In There”. I’m not a fan of hanging and don’t feel particularly supported when I am told to “Join the club”, as if my dilemma is hardly worth noting. We need better strategies in taking on this job of encourager unless we want to leave our friends hanging.
Fortunately, the best responses come to mind as we ask authentic questions and listen with care. We don’t interrupt; we don’t offer advice or correction. Listening to someone tell all his or her heart is a great privilege. Holding their words with care, we can ask questions that help a friend see the shape of their longing, the dimensions of their truest story, and those questions will have value because they are spoken with care.
It’s not easy, this encourager role, and it takes time to listen well, but when I think of the moments that have brought me to tears, in films or novels or life, they are almost always moments in which unexpected encouragement arrives just when the world looks most bleak.
And, it occurs to me that if a six-year-old understands that the world needs encouragers, it’s probably a job we should consider.