Several years ago, Roger Rosenblatt, in an essay in TIME magazine, offered this advice to his son who was graduating from high school and heading off to college: “Whatever you do in life, be sure to admire others who do it as well or better than you. My trade of journalism is sodden these days with practitioners who seem incapable of admiring others or anything.”
The incapacity to admire others doesn’t just afflict journalists. It seems to be a universal disease today. We see it everywhere, in journalism, for sure, but also in the academic world, in professional circles of all kinds, and in church and family life. It seems none of us are very good any more at affording anyone (outside of a very select circle of “our own”) the gaze of admiration. Children are still good at admiring, but, among us, the adults, there’s little in the way of simple appreciative consciousness. We know how to criticize, but not how to admire.
Why? What’s causing this? Why do others and the things around us never seem good enough, never seem worthy of admiration? Why do we always find fault in everyone and everything?
We’d like to think it’s sophistication, a refined sense of truth, aesthetics, and history that makes us so critical of others and things. Indeed there is a flaw in everything, something that’s either simplistic, acting out of self-interest, naive, in bad taste, overly-saccharine, ill- informed, or itself too cynical to merit admiration. Only God is perfect. Everything and everybody else have faults that can be criticized.
But our sophistication, enlightenment, and refined sense of aesthetics are ultimately not the real reason why we find ourselves so easily offended, hypercritical, and so stingy in our admiration and praise. Something more base lurks underneath, immaturity. In the end, our itch to criticize rather than admire is, more often than not, nothing more than a projection of our own unhappiness and a not-so-subtle plea that’s saying: “Admire me!” “Notice me!” “Why am I not being noticed and admired?”
Anthropology tells us that adulthood can be defined this way: A mature man or woman is a principle of order rather than disorder, is someone who helps carry the burdens and tensions of others rather than dumps his or her own tensions on them, is someone who helps feed others rather than feeds off of them, and is someone who admires others as opposed to demanding that others admire him or her. One of the defining traits of human maturity is the capacity to admire. If that is true, and it is, then our proclivity for criticism speaks of a lot more things than simply our enlightenment.
Thomas Aquinas once stated that to withhold a compliment from someone is a sin because we are withholding food that this person needs to live. That’s a challenging statement, but the challenge is more than that of providing food for others to live on. Admiring others also provides us with the food we ourselves need.
One of the reasons why we live with so much dissatisfaction, anger, bitterness, and depression is precisely because we no longer know how to admire. It’s hard to be happy and to feel good about ourselves when we don’t feel very good about anything or anyone around us. Without admiration we can never be happy – nor can we see straight, irrespective of how sophisticated, educated, scientifically-trained, aesthetically fined- tuned, or hermeneutically-enlightened we are.
Hugo of St. Victor had an axiom which said: “Love is the eye!” Only when we see through the prism of love do we see correctly. Admiration is part of that. When we don’t admire, we aren’t seeing straight, pure and simple. When we are forever seeing what’s wrong in others that speaks volumes about our own interior state. Partly we see what’s out there, partly though what we think we see is largely coloured by our own interior disposition. Thus an habitually negative eye says as much about the beholder as it does about the beholden.
Whenever our world feels grey, whenever we feel bitter and short- changed, and whenever we feel frustrated with everything and everyone, we need to ask ourselves: “When was the last time I really admired someone?” “When was the last time I told someone that he or she had done something really well?” “When is the last time I looked at anything or anyone with the gaze of admiration?”
When we admire we get to feel good because, when we act like God, we get to feel like God. God is never grey, depressed, and cynical, and God’s first gaze at us, as both Scripture and the mystics assure us, is not one of critical disapproval but one of admiration. As Julian of Norwich puts it, God sits in heaven, completely relaxed, smiling, his face looking like a marvellous symphony. That’s hardly the description of how we – journalists, academics, artists, theologians, ministers, priests, and ordinary folks – normally look at the world.