Power to Become (From “Quiet Thoughts” by Paul S. McElroy)
“To criticize or to find fault with someone is to fail to see that person in his full possibilities. It is to see his many weaknesses rather than his many strengths…This alienates…To accept people as they are and for what they are, to place confidence in them and to encourage them, is to help them become better than they are. To treat people as if they were what they ought to be is to help them become what they are capable of becoming. Within every person is the capacity to become something greater than he now is. It is possible for each of us to become better and to help others to become what they ought to be.”
Living up or down to the expectations of those around us is a process most of us encounter everyday, whether we realize it or not. Recently, I saw a friend “become what they are capable of becoming” when they were treated “as if they were what they ought to be.” This friend was told by an older man in a position of leadership, who knew her all but 20 minutes, that she had a “God-given talent of leadership.” He told her “you’re either born with it or you’re not and you have it! I can see it! Not everyone is a leader but you have a natural ability to lead and you should use it. You were made to be a leader.” This man set expectations of my friend that she would be a naturally effective leader. He then proceeded to “place confidence in [her] and to encourage [her]” as he appointed her the leader of an operation that would require her to organize, direct and motivate 15+ people to complete an important task. As we might guess, my friend responded to the man’s expectations of her and transformed into a person many of us had never seen before. She was confident, enthusiastic, organized, and overall a very effective, natural leader! Since this day I have watched this friend become what she ought to be, become what she is capable of becoming; she lives everyday like that first day- as someone with a God-given talent for leadership.
When asked about that day my friend will tell you, “Well, when someone tells you that you have a God-given talented for something…you don’t want to let them down. You want to show them that they were right. So you do better.” This is the crux of living up or down to expectations. After my friend found her new life in response to the man’s affirmations, we all applauded her ability to live up to his expectations and become a better leader, as we should have. It is appropriate to celebrate someone who has responded to affirmation and raised expectations in a positive way, yet I find that people do not give much grace or understanding to those who hear harsh criticism and consequently live down to the expectations set of them. We can understand why someone would take positive encouragement deeply into the core of their heart and be compelled to become better because of it, yet we cannot understand how someone could be deeply affected and hurt by criticism that leads to lowered expectations and thus, stunts their progress towards a becoming what they ought to be.
People will make the argument that to truly be what you ought to be is to do so even in the face of criticism by others. It is supposed to be a sign of maturity to become better than we are and live out our full potential despite the low expectations of those around us. We are essentially told to “Buck Up!” and “Prove them wrong!” as to show that we are capable of being our best selves no matter what is raging around us. I agree that to press on and live up to the highest standards despite the fault others have found in us is admirable and should be expected of someone with a certain level of maturity. However, when it is someone we trusted and respected that finds fault, fails to see us in our full possibilities and sees our many weaknesses rather than our strengths…it alienates. This alienation leads to embarrassment, guilt and worst of all, shame. This alienation does not give us the best opportunity to “become what we ought to be.” I think it quite contradictory to applaud the encouraged person for living up to high expectations and simultaneously find fault with the alienated person when they struggle to disregard the fact that those around them have lost confidence in them and lowered their expectations.
I believe that McElroy was on to something. The best way to help someone become better is to treat people as if they were what they ought to be by placing confidence in them and encouraging them. All it took was a few words of affirmation from someone in a position of authority for my friend to realize her ability to effectively lead people. And in the same way, all it takes is a few words of incautious criticism from someone in a position of authority for a person to feel a great deal of shame and alienation.
May I always be someone who is encouraging and edifying to those that I truly care for. May I continue to learn how best to care for those around me and speak with gentleness in moments of observation and reflection so as not to cause them any unnecessary alienation or shame. And in refusal of that alienation may I come along side others, helping them to realize their abilities by treating them as if they already are what they ought to be. May I always set high expectations and enable those that I care for to reach them by providing ample words of encouragement and understanding. May I be cautious as to do everything in gentle love that does not break the spirit, but builds a sense of dignity. Amen.