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Updated: Jun 5, 2023

I have spent much of my adult life with a kind of default idea playing like a background tape loop: that I have come up short, or am coming up short, and I am therefore possibly not worthy of belonging in the human community, or even in the Universe. "What have I done wrong?" goes the mantra, "What am I doing wrong? Or what could go wrong?"

This has been so consistent, like a white noise, that it went largely unnoticed. "The most pervasive lies are the hardest see." Analysis and logic are powerless against the most pervasive lies because they themselves depend on those lies. As I explore in Of Geometry & Jesus, rational thought cannot see the premises that it depends on. It can only set off in whatever direction those premises have pointed it. In the same way, after it's been going on for a while, we don't hear white noise. The noise becomes a given. All our analysis and conversation take place against the backdrop of it. We don't realize that it could be otherwise.

It's contrast that allows us to see our premises. When we encounter someone or some culture that doesn't share our premises, we have an opportunity to be jolted into new worlds--and therefore new possibilities. Similarly, only when the white noise stops do we become aware that it was there in the first place. It is the contrast of silence that makes us aware of the background noise. This is why meditation is so powerful. When we radically dis-identify from every noise—both internal and external—we allow ourselves space to move into. Our lives can change in fundamental and therefore satisfying ways.

Sometimes it takes awhile to adopt new premises after the initial exposure to them. I’ve been fascinated by the idea—which I’ve heard and read about from numerous sources—that I am worthy of unconditional love, and that emphasizing positive aspects of myself and others is a kind of royal road to happiness and fulfillment. At the same time, I’ve been repelled—even annoyed—by that idea. It rubbed against something deeply ingrained in me—and deeply ingrained, I think, in our culture. The idea has seemed, for one, dumb. How could I and others take myself seriously if I emphasized positive things all the time? If you believe the news, the world is nothing but an ever-gathering shitstorm. Complaint, warning, and worry make up most of our public and private conversations. Don’t I want to be a part of those conversations? Don’t I want to be heard, taken seriously?

But there is something incredibly dumb in the perpetuation of complaint and worry. Namely, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t solve our problems. It makes them worse. It paralyzes us with fear and suspicion. Kids these days are experiencing depression and committing suicide in higher numbers than ever. (Video games must seem a better option than being overwhelmed by the bombardment of dire warnings and doom out in the “real world.") If doom and gloom are not helpful, how can they be intellectual? They are really a kind of pageant or white noise. And our culture is mesmerized by it.

Where was I? Oh, right. Me. Me and my sense of worthiness. I’m seeing lately with greater clarity how much both self-criticism and wanting others to like me—to belong—have been the backdrop to my experience. And I think they’ve gone hand in hand. I’ve believed it’s unseemly to praise myself, to emphasize what I’ve done well, to recognize my talents. If I do that, so the thinking has gone, won’t people not like me? Not praising myself, in other words, has been an attempt to get praise from others!

Either way, I want praise. What a liberation to recognize and honor that! And why not cut out the middle-man and praise myself? Praise works. Without the recognition of what I’m good at, how else could I know how I can best contribute to the world in my unique way, with my unique gifts? Without praise for what I’ve done well, how could I feel encouraged to do more of it? I’ve been driving largely with the brakes of self-criticism on. This is both unhelpful and bad for the car.

I want to distinguish praise from ranking. My aunt recently asked me who my favorite poet was. “Me,” I replied. I have fallen deeply in love with some of the poems that have arisen from me. They have delighted, surprised, and touched me in ways other people’s poems have not, so they have a special place in my heart. But that doesn’t mean I think I’m “the best” poet. The “best poet” is a meaningless idea. It depends on who you are, what mood you’re in, which poem, what you’re looking for in a poem, and roughly 300,000 other things.

I thought about this the other day after talking to a friend who dislikes LeBron James. It's not just because the Lakers beat his team the Warriors in the playoffs this year. My friend thinks LeBron is immodest. I guess James has claimed he’s the “GOAT,” or suggested it or something. I got to thinking, what’s so wrong about that? Well, nothing, morally. But I think it doesn’t feel quite right because the claim suggests a ranking. It’s a misrepresentation of reality. It suggests there is some actual answer to the question of who’s the best basketball player of all time. Of course, playful conversations about who’s the GOAT can be fun, especially if they help us appreciate the particular gifts of particular players.

Lately, I’ve been hearing more praise and appreciation from others, and I’m more open to it. The two go hand-in-hand in a virtuous circle. I like it. It feels like water in my roots. I feel it is helping me blossom. I also hope this piece might water your roots a bit.


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