Thomas Aquinas once suggested that it’s a sin not to give a compliment to someone when it’s deserved, because by withholding our praise we’re depriving that person of the food that he or she needs to live on. He’s right. Perhaps it’s not a sin to withhold a compliment but it’s a sad impoverishment, both for the person deserving the compliment and for the one withholding it.
We don’t live on bread alone. Jesus told us that. Our soul too needs to be fed, and its food is affirmation, recognition and blessing. Every one of us needs to be healthily affirmed when we do something well so as to have resources within us with which to affirm others. We can’t give what we haven’t got. That’s self-evident. And so for us to love and affirm others, we must first be loved, first be blessed and first be praised. Praise, recognition and blessing build up the soul.
But complimenting others isn’t just important for the person receiving the compliment; it’s equally important for the person giving it. In praising someone we give him or her some needed food for their soul. But in doing this we also feed our own soul. There’s a truth about philanthropy that holds true too for the soul: we need to give to others not just because they need it but because we cannot be healthy unless we are giving ourselves away. Healthy admiration is a philanthropy of the soul.
Moreover, admiring and praising others is a religious act. Benoît Standaert submits that “giving praise comes out of the roots of our existence”. What does he mean by that? In complimenting and praising others we are tapping into what’s deepest inside us, namely, the image and likeness of God. When we praise someone else then, like God creating, we are breathing life into a person, breathing spirit into them. People need to be praised. We don’t live on bread alone, and we don’t live on oxygen alone either.
The image and likeness of God inside us is not an icon, but an energy, the energy that’s most real inside us. Beyond our ego, wounds, pride, sin, and the pettiness of our hearts and minds on any given day, what’s most real within us is a magnanimity and graciousness which looks at the world and wants to say, like God: “It is good! It is very good!” When we’re at our best, our truest, speaking and acting out of our maturity, we can admire. Indeed, our willingness to praise others is a sign of maturity. We become more mature by being generous in our praise.
But praise is not something we give out easily. Mostly we are so blocked by the disappointments and frustrations within our lives that we give in to cynicism and jealousy and operate out of these rather than out of our virtues. We rationalise this, of course, in different ways, either by claiming that what we’re supposed to admire is juvenile (and we’re too bright and sophisticated to be impressed) or that the admirable act was done for someone’s self-aggrandisement and we’re not going to feed another person’s ego. However, more often than not our real reason for withholding praise is that we ourselves have been insufficiently praised and, because of that, harbour jealousy and lack the strength to praise others. I say this sympathetically; all of us are wounded.
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