One Simple Act

First, my thanks to Nanci for recommending this book!

Second, the name of the book, which is One Simple Act (with the subtitle Discovering the Power of Generosity), reminds me of the since-cancelled series No Ordinary Family, probably because the structure of the title is the same. Actually they have nothing in common, but every once in a while it's nice to associate freely.

The edition from which I will be quoting passages was published by Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.) in 2009. Not that I have read any of Debbie Macomber's fiction, but she strikes me as the evangelical Protestant Jan Karon (Jan Karon is the author of the Mitford series of books, some of which are about an Episcopal priest) - not that I've read any of Jan Karon's books, either.

As the book's subtitle indicates, its subject is generosity, and as Macomber is an (evangelical) Christian, she addresses her subject from that perspective - so, for example, she cites Scripture in support of being generous and notes that one important means of being generous is to tithe to the church. One of the things I like about the book is its deepening structure. We all struggle to be generous sometimes (or, what is worse, believe ourselves to be generous when in fact we are not), and Macomber does not set out to overwhelm us from the get-go; rather, her focus is on, as she puts it, 'simple' ways of practicing generosity, not all of which (in fact, very few) involve giving money to organisations or causes.

Being a relative novice at true generosity, I would like to focus on the earlier chapters of Macomber's work, as I think I will have the most fruitful commentary there. I don't know how generous any of you readers are, but if you have ever felt you would like to be more generous, perhaps some of what Macomber has to say will be of help to you.

Incidentally, Debbie Macomber is only the second woman whose work I have written about on The Marginal Virtues; the first being J. K. Rowling - oddly enough when I began thinking about the fact that Debbie Macomber was a woman and was racking my brains trying to think whether I'd written any other posts on books written by women, it took me a moment to remember Rowling. I did select another book by a female author when I selected books for August. This is veering into full-blown digression territory, but it is funny how, of the twenty-five books suggested for me by other people, only three were written by women (so, per capita, the ladies aren't doing too badly, since I in fact selected at random two of those three books on which to write marginal commentaries).

Anyway, on to One Simple Act and how 'one simple act' can begin to lead one on the path to a lifetime of generosity.

Macomber's first chapter has to do with gratitude, but also serves as an introduction to the work:
Kate... pulled her scarf up over her nose and mouth to shield her lungs from the bitter cold air, and rushed across the lot to her car. [How Canadian, eh?] Just one quick stop at the grocery store and she'd be on the way home to cuddle up... in front of a warm fire.
As she waited at the traffic light to turn into the grocery store lot, she took off one glove to feel if the air blasting out of the heat vents was starting to warm. ... In the few minutes it had taken her to get from her bookstore to the grocery store, her fingers had started to ache from the cold. ... The light changed to green, and as she turned into the lot she came alongside a narrow median strip and noticed a man holding a crudely made hand-lettered cardboard sign: homeless, need food. please help. [Small caps original] ... His collar was pulled high against the cold, but her eyes went to his hands holding the sign. Bare hands.
My fingers ache from five minutes in this cold car, with gloves on. How cold must his be? she wondered. Her eyes went to his face. Late twenties, probably six or seven years older than Mark. The sudden thought of her son instantly made her shoulders sag. ... Mark had left home several months ago after a.. struggle... with his parents over his drug abuse. ... Where is he tonight? Cold and hungry like this guy?... Are Mark's hands cold tonight? [Italics original]
And then it came to her. A quiet nudge. She parked, hurried into the store... . Through the checkout, a dash back to her car, and back along the other side of the median strip, where she pulled alongside the young man, rolled down her window, and stopped. ... He walked over to her car, bucket held out, but she didn't hand any money out the window. Instead she held out a warm pair of gloves she'd just bought. He looked startled.
"Your hands must be terribly cold," she said. "I hope these help." The young man looked confused for a moment, then accepted the gloves. "Thanks," he said.
... [S]he pulled away and moved toward the intersection. She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw him pulling on the gloves. She blinked to clear a few tears away. They were warm on her cold cheeks, but another warmth from somewhere in her core was spreading upward, and she found herself smiling.
For the first time in a long time she didn't feel powerless at the thought of Mark. ...
In that one simple act Kate had discovered the power of generosity. She'd not only warmed a troubled young man, she'd kindled a spark of hope for Mark. And she realized that God had just used her to care for the son of another worried mother. Who knows, maybe the young man on the median strip called his mother that night.
Just one simple act.
[Heading omitted]
... If you recognized my name on the cover [I didn't] of the book you may be asking yourself why a writer known for fiction is writing a nonfiction book on generosity. The answer is... well... ... simple. [Italics original] Have you ever discovered something so great that you just had to tell your friends? ...When we find something we love, we want to share it with others and spread the joy. Right. That is how I feel about simple acts of generosity. I have had some encounters with generosity - as the recipient, the giver, the witness - that have had a profoundly life-changing impact on me. I've just got to share the news.
On the other hand, you may have seen the word "generosity" and thought to yourself, Oh great. One more appeal to go digging deep into my pocket. [italics original] Don't worry! You are not in for a brand-new load of guilt, I promise! ... In our age of overwork and exhaustion, tossing a few dollars here and there may be the easiest way to practice generosity. But I am talking about it in larger terms...
Like my friend Kate. She made a five-minute investment of time and on a whim probably spent about eight or nine dollars on that pair of gloves. ... When she handed those gloves out the window she brought unexpected goodness into a bleak situation. And that goodness spilled over and gave back. It multiplied. ...
... My goal in writing this is to surprise you with the multiple benefits that come from small and large acts of generosity. I'm convinced that we cannot become all we could until we are willing to unclench our hands and release what we've been clinging to, what we've been determined to keep for ourselves. The intriguing part is that once we release such gifts we are free to take hold of something more, something better, something that God has wanted to give us for a very long time. [pp. 1-7] Being a storyteller, Macomber naturally begins with a story illustrating the thesis (if you like) of her book, and then states it plainly. The story is a modest one, although true ('my friend Kate' being a real person who actually has a son who was on the streets abusing drugs, and who actually bought a pair of gloves for some mother's son, &c.), and if it can be taken to be illustrative of Macomber's writing style (I will grant that it probably cannot), then she belongs to that class of American Christian authors whose style is plain and sometimes bland. However, since this book has some affective power, perhaps there is hope for her fiction. Given that she later mentions how people have been affected by her books, it is obvious that they do have affective power. But a look at the phenomenon of affective power in literature is beyond the scope of this marginal commentary. Anyway, generosity is important, as Macomber states, and certainly the statement that you have to let go of what you are clinging onto to receive another gift is true both factually and figuratively (not to mention theologically).
The first aspect of generosity which Macomber addresses, as I said above, is gratitude:
Several years ago I read of the old Quaker tradition of keeping a gratitude journal. I was inspired by the idea, so I purchased a book... [and] [e]ach morning I wrote a little thank-you note to God. I found it to be a way to start my day on a positive note. Little did I understand then how the discipline of writing down five things for which I am thankful every day would forever change my life.
When I first started, I found it easy to hit the big things - good parents, a wonderful husband... [&c.]. These precious gifts still make their way onto my list over and over. Today, when I reread journals from past years I see that as the months, then years trickled by, I began to dig deeper for things to add to my list. As I matured in my understanding of how God works, it wasn't only the good things, the pleasant, "happy" gifts for which I expressed appreciation. I began to see more clearly how God was using life's trials in unexpected ways for my good, so I began to write down my gratitude for the seemingly negative things in my life - my troubles, pains, and losses. With that knowledge I became more confident that God would see me through everything, and my gratitude grew deeper. In fact, the greatest example of giving thanks for negative things can be found in Corrie ten Boom's book The Hiding Place.
[Heading omitted]
... Corrie and her sister Betsie had been arrested... for trying to help Jews escape the Holocaust. They ended up in Ravensbrück... .
Living conditions were insufferable. The women were housed... on dirty, flea-infested straw that was strewn on wooden platforms. The fleas feasted night and day until everyone was covered in itchy, raised welts.
If it hadn't been for their Bible and the comfort the sisters were able to take from Betsie's readings, Corrie didn't know how they could have survived from day to day. If the guards had ventured into the room they would have discovered the forbidden Bible. ... Over and over, the two sisters wondered at the mystery of why the guards never inspected their barracks.
One morning Betsie read the Bible verse in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 that said, "Give thanks in all circumstances." She insisted that they put this into practice, feeling certain that giving thanks was the answer to their suffering. ... [W]hen Betsie began to thank God for the suffocating room and finally for the fleas, Corrie balked. It seemed impossible to Corrie to find anything for which to thank God in the deprivation of a concentration camp.
But Betsie insisted, reminding Corrie that God said, "In all circumstances." ... It wasn't until much later that Corrie discovered the reason the dreaded inspection never happened... . ...
The guards refused to set foot into those barracks because of the out-of-control flea infestation. When Betsie took God at His word [about which more later] and thanked Him in all circumstances, she had no idea those fleas were actually a gift from God.
It's easy to be grateful for the sunshine, the good things, plenty of food, meeting the budget, and compliant children, But God tells us to express gratitude in all circumstances.
... That means we are called to offer thanks when the wind blows into our lives at hurricane force. ...
The importance of giving thanks is made clear in Philippians 4:6: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Interesting, isn't it? The antidote for anxiety is to pray with thanksgiving. [italics original]
I admit learning to praise God in all circumstances takes practice. I find I need to be intentional and deliberate in doing so and make it a day-by-day, even minute-by-minute exercise. ...
In the footsteps of my grandparents [about whom Macomber tells a story involving gratitude] I, too, want to look at life with a sense of gratitude. I see my journal writing as starting my morning out on the positive note of practicing gratitude. [pp. 7-11] At first glance it seems odd (to say the least) that anyone, particularly someone who survived imprisonment, should insist that we express gratitude under such horrible conditions. But consider the remarks of Edwin Friedman, a family systems therapist (and rabbi, no less) on human survival in the camps (from Generation to Generation, p. 63): 'Even in Nazi concentration camps the human response to challenge could make a difference. Here was a hostile environment that came as close to Category I [i.e., an environment in which it is impossible for an organism to survive] as could be found in human experience.  ... Concentration camp survival literature consistently shows that even in that environment the response of an organism could optimize the possibility of survival. It did not guarantee survival. What can, anywhere? But it could make a difference where a difference was possible. As small as the crack in the door of fate was, some saw it and some did not.' Bible reading and study were how Corrie and her sister (and, one presumes, other women in their barracks) were able to cope with their imprisonment, and the fleas which infested the barracks were what kept the guards from discovering what they were up to. Betsie was eventually put to death, but Corrie survived. Would she have done so were it not for the circumstance that fleas infested the barracks in which she was kept, allowing her to continue doing the only activity which provided meaning and hope for her in such dire circumstances? Anyway, as Macomber notes, gratefulness is a habit which requires practise. By her own account, it took her a while to move beyond being thankful only for things that made her happy. Later in the chapter (although I won't cite it here), she describes a positive encounter made possible only by her habit of gratitude even for disruptive circumstances. The focus of gratitude in this chapter is God, although I think Macomber does address, if not directly, the importance of expressing gratitude to others. That is, she does not write a chapter about being grateful to others, but it can easily be inferred that to do so is a form of generosity. Finally, I won't dissect Macomber's ascription of the authorship of a letter written by the apostle Paul to God (demonstrable when she writes, concerning the passage Betsie is inspired by in her story from Corrie ten Boom's book, 'When Betsie took God at His word and thanked Him in all circumstances'), but I should like to point out that it seems that Macomber has got the drift of the passage, even if I think her doctrine of Scriptural inspiration is off.
Macomber does not just appeal to Scriptural or theological insight regarding gratitude; she cites at least one scientific study in support of its benefits:
Two researchers, R. A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and M. E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have been researching the dimensions and perspectives of gratitude. ...
Their experiments demonstrated that those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer illness symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded troubles or neutral life events. As they continued to experiment, they found that participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress over a two-month period toward their most important goals... compared to the subjects in their control group. ...
Remember that I said that generosity grows out of gratitude? [I think I omitted that point] The study also showed that participants in the daily gratitude experiment were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another. You see, when gratitude becomes a habit, then generosity seems to follow naturally. [pp. 14-15] Macomber also cites an article called 'The Power of Gratitude' by Stephen Post, a professor of bioethics at the school of medicine of Case Western Reserve University (not the best name for a school, but there we are), which enumerates five good effects of gratitude upon health. The highlights of Emmons' and McCullough's studies, which Macomber in effect rehashes, are on Dr. Emmons' website at the University of California, Davis; I provided the link, above. As Macomber points out, gratitude, or gratefulness, is a habit. Many people decry the lack of gratitude today, but what they fail to grasp is that those who do not, but ought to, display gratitude fail to do so because they have not learned it as a habit. Simply put, gratitude does not come naturally. Moreover, the habit of gratefulness is not learned only by having 'table manners' drilled into one's head. To teach others to be grateful, we must enact gratitude ourselves. I suspect that many who complain about the lack of gratitude which their children show have themselves failed to do more than pay lip service to gratitude, or else only practise it when they are deliberately trying to teach it to their children. Going back to the studies of Emmons et al., it may seem a bit odd that practising gratitude should have beneficial effects on personal health. After all, we should practise gratefulness even if it did not have any such effect. But in fact we all know that body and mind have an impact on one another (indeed, it is probably mistaken to say that a human consists of two categorically distinct entities, the one 'body', the other 'mind'), and the practise of gratitude is in a way not unlike say, the habit of drinking moderately.
Enough, for the time being, about gratitude. It is worth reminding ourselves that we can start by being grateful for what it is easy to be thankful about, and, as we make gratefulness a habit, we will find that we are more and more able to be thankful for things which we would have used to find irritating or unpleasant. There is, I think, a limit to this (in that there are things which we ought not to be thankful for), but to quote the passage from 1 Thessalonians again, 'giving thanks in all circumstances' is not the same as saying 'giving thanks for all circumstances' (I had better consult the Greek... ). Corrie and Betsie ten Boom did not, for instance, thank God that they had been sent to a concentration camp, but they thanked God for the fleas; in other words, for something which in other circumstances would have been bad but which, in their circumstances, proved to have a helpful aspect.

Macomber's next chapter looks at 'the mystery of sharing', and does so by means of exploring the 'feeding of the multitude', when Jesus fed an entire crowd of people from only two fishes and five loaves of bread. 'If you'd like to read it yourself,' she writes, 'you can find it in... Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6:1-13.' And, then, her tale begins...
Picture a young boy, living near the Sea of Galilee in the first century a.d.
"Mother," he said as he came into the yard where she knelt. His mother didn't stop what she was doing. She took a wooden paddle and slid it into a clay oven, scooting it around until she worked it under all the small mounds of baked bread. The boy breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of barley as she removed the loaves, setting them on top of the oven. ...
"Father is going to find Jesus and listen to him teach. Can I go with him?" ...
His father came out of the doorway of their home, pulling a cloak over his shoulder. "I should be back before nightfall," he said.
His mother took a cloth and wrapped five tiny rough barley loaves and two small dried fish. "Take these just in case you get hungry." Her son was happy to oblige. ... [Skip a bit, brother.]
The boy didn't remember his hunger until late in the day when the Teacher's followers came through the crowds.
"Does anyone have any food?" asked one. "The Master says the people are hungry and we need to feed them."
No one else had any food, and the boy said nothing. ...
Another of the Teacher's men shook his head and said, "I've figured it would take a full eight months' wages to buy enough food to feed this crowd."
They asked again, "Does anyone have any food?"
The boy thought about the lunch his mother had given him. He was hungry, and if he gave it away, there would be nothing for him. ... Yet, the words of the Teacher had touched his heart. It was within his means to give something back for all that the Teacher had given him.
"I have a lunch," the boy volunteered in a small voice. He held out the scrap of cloth with his small loaves and fishes. ...
All the child had were a few sardines and stone-sized loaves of bread. The real gift was his willingness to offer it. Like the little boy, we need not be ashamed of bringing our small lunch to Jesus. When we think of generosity, we too often think of grand gestures... . But when Jesus gave us an example, He focused on just one simple act. [pp. 20-3] Macomber has a good point, in that too often we imagine generosity in terms of heroics which we cannot hope to meet, but the 'mystery of sharing' is that God can take what little we have to offer, and give it to the world. As the stanza (on poetic terminology see my post on the Dark Night of the Soul) from 'In the Bleak Midwinter' says,
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him - give my heart.
As for her re-imagining of the feeding of the five thousand, however, I must admit to having a few quibbles. It should first be noted that only in the version of the feeding in John is there any mention of a boy; in the other three we only hear of the limited amount of food. The emphasis of the evangelists (John not excepted) with regard to the feeding of the multitudes (for Matthew and Mark both include a story in which Jesus feeds four thousand at another time) is not, therefore, generosity. Rather, the evangelists emphasise that hearing and obeying the message of Jesus as becoming a citizen of the renewed Israel, the kingdom of God, for the point of the feedings is that they recapitulate the gift of manna, as described in Exodus 16. Generosity is one of the habits that make up the fruit of the Spirit (see, e.g., Galatians 5.22-26), and is indeed to be commended, but it is not the point being made in the accounts of the feeding of the five thousand in the gospels (after all, when God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert, they were being anything but generous!), or, perhaps, it is the least of the possible interpretations of the miraculous feedings. Meanwhile, as for the re-telling the story from the point of view of the boy, I agree with the opinion of Gretchen Wolff Pritchard who, in Offering the Gospel to Children, criticises the practise of 'revamping' Biblical stories (on, say, the grounds that children won't 'get' them) and their reduction to a moral lesson, as if, say, they were from among Aesop's fables. A story from the gospels with more relevance to Macomber's theme (and about which it would be fair to assert that generosity is intrinsic to it) would be the story of the widow's mite (or coins), told in Mark 12.41-44 and Luke 21.1-4. But then, no miracle occurs in the story, and it appears in only two gospels. I think Macomber wasn't quite confident that she could promote generosity without an authoritative and miraculous example, which the feeding of the five thousand certainly is! But perhaps she forgot the words of Jesus from John (14.12), 'the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these' - pretty powerful stuff coming from Jesus, who, in the gospel of John, is depicted as nearly superhuman. In any case, Macomber elsewhere defends sufficiently the case for generosity being worked out in 'one simple act' (or, more accurately, one simple act after another).
The last of what one might call the 'easier' forms of generosity is encouragement, and I will leave off after discussing it. I write 'easier', because, of course, being grateful, or willing to share, or encouraging, although among the easiest forms of generosity, can be difficult, and it's not hard to see that much of the time many people cannot manage even these; all of us sometimes probably find it hard to be easily generous (unless we have made a habit of it). These are good starting points for generosity, of course; but Macomber's book is full of many more kinds of generosity, which are worth striving for. I am reminded of one of C. S. Lewis's warnings (somewhere) about being content with easy charity - like leaving a generous tip.

Anyway, let's look at what Macomber has to say about encouragement. First, she tells a personal story about encouragement:
I was a little girl who craved encouragement.
To say I struggled in school is putting it mildly. I'm dyslexic, but in those days, the teachers didn't have a name for this particular learning disability. ... In first grade I was placed in the Robin reading group at school; the only girl in the "slow" group. ...
In my third-grade parent/teacher conference, I sat with my mother. As I looked around the room at all our best papers pinned to the walls, I longed to hear a word of encouragement. I loved school. It was difficult, but I worked hard. I'll never forget what my teacher said. She put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Mrs. Adler, Debbie is a nice little girl and I enjoy having her in my class, but she'll never do well in school."
Those words became part of my life story, and do you know what? She was right. I never excelled in school. Now that I've been a mom and a grandmother, I wonder if those words were a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if she had spoken different words, like, "Debbie tries so hard, I'm guessing it will be just a matter of time until academics click for her." Would I have clung to those words, taking hope from them? ...
That little girl who hungered for encouragement is still tucked inside me. She's helped me realize that there's a child in all of us who craves a word of encouragement.
We are so unaware of how simple comments can change people's lives. [pp. 27-8] I should mention that Macomber provides an example of 'how simple comments can change people's lives', but I've omitted it, although she has also already provided an example where such a simple comment exerted a harmful change on someone's life; namely, hers. Stylistically, the repetition of 'never' as a paragraph by itself, stark and alone, could have been over-the-top, but it feels right, not least because, from the perspective of, say, an eight year-old girl, the teacher's comment, 'she'll never do well in school' is like Judgment from On High. My heart goes out to eight year-old Debbie, who, instead of encouragement, received a crushing blow, from a teacher who, no doubt, did not mean to affect her so - after all, as she said, she enjoyed having Debbie in her class. (Do any of us mean to hurt people by what we say most of the time? No, and yet we still do.) I am not sure about 'self-fulfilling prophecy'; i.e., what Macomber means by using it. I suppose it is, though, as it came true because her teacher said she would never excel in school, but the problem is, we don't know whether, had she said anything else - say, more encouraging- Debbie Alder (as she was then) would have excelled in school. Nevertheless, it is a well-known psychological phenomenon that saying 'this is so' about something is a way of making it happen. (To frame it in more vicious terms, recall Joseph Goebbels' claim about telling a big lie often enough so that people believe it to be true.) Another element of exemplary psychological insight on Macomber's part is her comment about her inner girl helping her realise that everyone carries his or her childhood self within.
Macomber then makes a helpful distinction between what she calls praise, and encouragement:
A battle over praise versus encouragement has been raging in educational circles for a long while now. We've always thought it important to praise the things children do. How many times do you overhear parents saying "good job" to their children?
According to many psychologists, in the rush to build self-esteem, many parents and teachers overpraise. Children begin to expect praise for every little task and feel unappreciated if they don't receive effusive words. They become praise junkies.
A friend tells the story of trying to potty-train her little girl, Mandy. She put a bottle of nonpareils - the tiny candies used to decorate cakes - on the counter beside the toilet. Every time Mandy was successful, she got a tiny candy reward. With a sparkle in her eye, Mandy would stick her little hand out making a motioning movement with her fingers, and she'd say, "Canny, Mommy." She loved that candy so much, guess what this bright little girl learned to do? She learned how to control her bladder so that she could go every few minutes to get the maximum "canny." Her mom learned that rewards - praise - often leads to unintended consequences.
I know a small-business owner who tells me that she sees far too many overpraised young adults who can barely begin a task without needing the "canny" of praise. It cripples them. They are motivated to perform for the praise of others instead of learning self-satisfaction with a job well done.
One definition of praise is "to voice approbation, commendation, or esteem." All of those words have judgment built in. The person giving the praise deems you worthy of commendation, like the words "good job." We're evaluating and giving our thumbs up.
Encouragement, on the other hand, looks to the effort behind a job. Instead of hearing, "That's the best cake you've ever made," encouragement might be something like, "I think it's wonderful that when you have free time you choose to bake for your family." Praise too often refers to the product, while encouragement focuses on the act itself and the heart behind the action.
Had my third-grade teacher been in the habit of encouraging, she might have said to my mother, "I've noticed that Debbie never seems to give up, no matter how hard the task." [pp. 31-2] I am not sure I would use the word 'praise' to describe the phenomenon Macomber is contrasting with encouragement, but I can't think of a better term. In any case, from the Christian perspective, one will have to have a clear distinction in mind between praise as 'canny' (to use Macomber's clever image) and praise as something appropriate to offer God. In the Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis writes about remembering how tawdry he once found all the praise being offered to God in the psalms, no doubt because, when he held that opinion, he was not distinguishing between kinds of praise. Or, put another way, Christians praise God because all there is for them to do is refer to the 'product' (if you will) of God's action; God does not need encouragement. To return to the main point, an entire book could be written on the distinction between praise and encouragement (and, indeed, I would have liked Macomber to have provided at least one citation to a psychological work on the matter, although I suppose it would not be hard to find). God - among others - knows I myself have sought - and still seek - praise in this unhelpful way. As a young chorister, I remember, after leading the psalm or singing the gradual sentence or performing an anthem, making remarks to people (not just anyone; I at least was not insufferable in my quest for praise) as a way of leading them to compliment me for my performance. There are times when I still do that in relation to choral music, and I am sure that, under circumstances when I am feeling stress or pressure, I revert to seeking praise in that way. To tie this in to my commentary on the Dark Night of the Soul, the need for praise is one of those gratifications which needs to be overcome in order to progress in acquiring or bettering a skill - although one who does something well will invariably receive praise for it. It is just that (say) she won't be able to do it as well as she could if her motivation is to receive praise - or else, like the little girl in Macomber's story, she will always be trying to create the conditions under which she is gratified by praise. I think one problem with Macomber's discussion of praise versus encouragement is that it is too short. I think it would have been more fruitful to spell out other ways of distinguishing praise (as Macomber uses it here) and encouragement. Still, the example of what her teacher could have said is a good one. Whether Debbie is a good student or not, or what her prospects for learning are, do not come up. Instead, what is mentioned is a demonstrable quality: young Debbie displays tenacity. Looking at this contrast from another perspective, the preference of encouragement over praise suggests that one of the key notions of systems thinking is correct; that is, that we should prefer focussing on process rather than on content. The encouragement Macomber wishes her teacher could have given her is focussed on process: 'Debbie keeps working no matter what.' What her teacher actually said includes some focus on process ('I enjoy having her in my class'), but its main focus is content: 'she'll never do well in school'.
Another point Macomber makes about encouragement is that it 'changes the encourager':
There's another interesting thing that happens when we cultivate the habit of encouragement. Offering encouragement changes the encourager. The more we look to find ways to encourage others, the more we'll find ourselves being encouraged. We have scientific data and studies proving this to be true. We understand that, like the loaves and fishes, it's simply the miracle of multiplication. Let me say it again: The more we encourage, the more we are encouraged ourselves. [Italics original]
As Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, "Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself. Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them."
Jean Nidetch [the founder of Weight Watchers; link added] weighed more than 200 pounds in the early sixties, when... she went... to get a diet. She worked hard to follow it but became discouraged by how far she had to go. She knew she needed encouragement, so she invited six overweight friends to... encourage each other.
... Why was it so important for Nidetch to encourage people to take control of their lives? To answer that, she tells a story. When she was a teenager, she used to cross a park where she saw mothers sitting around visiting while the toddlers sat on their swings, with no one to push them. "I'd give them a push," says Nidetch. "And you know what happens when you push a kid on a swing? Pretty soon he's pumping, doing it himself. That's what my role in life is - I'm there to give others a push." ...
One simple act of encouragement can be the key that unlocks those long-buried treasures or never-dreamed-of possibilities. Encouragement might take the form of a simple word of affirmation. It might be telling someone you believe she can succeed. ... As we cultivate the habit of encouragement, we discover the power of encouraging others. [pp. 37-8] It came to my mind that, just as we can encourage others for good, so can we encourage them for evil. So wisdom and love are necessary so that we encourage people to follow their life-giving dreams. Indeed, many techniques and habits of motivating others can be used for good or ill; it all depends on what use to which they are put. Anyway, on re-reading, this section is probably the weakest in Macomber's otherwise excellent chapter on encouragement, because it doesn't quite display, in my view, how encouraging others encourages the one who does it. It can certainly be inferred from the story of Jean Nidetch, but it would have been better, in my view, if Macomber had made things clearer. Here, again, is another place where referring to at least one specific scientific source (even if it were a 'popular' one) would have been beneficial to the drift of the chapter's argument. Still, I think it is valid to say that, just as other forms of generosity redound upon the one who is generous, in encouraging others we are ourselves encouraged.
Much of Macomber's chapter on encouragement I have omitted, which is too bad, because in many respects I feel it is one of the best chapters of the book, and this despite the final muddled section on encouragement's effect upon the one who encourages. However, this commentary is long enough as it is, and I have to leave something for you to read for yourselves, assuming you pick up One Simple Act.

I will briefly note some of the other highlights of the chapter. One of the best parts of the chapter, in my view, is Macomber's account of a brilliant, accomplished young woman who began a relationship with a man who was "spec ed" (although evidently possessing mental competence) and encouraging him to get through college. Macomber also discusses some of the ups and downs when it came to the encouragement (and in one case, the nearly critical discouragement) of her career as a writer, and provides three 'simple acts' by which one can encourage others and keep track of how habitual one has made being encouraging.

I was beginning to go off on a tangent relating to the discrepancy between the emotional and affective impact of One Simple Act upon me and those of the works by Richard Paul Evans and Jason F. Wright upon which I wrote marginal commentaries, considering how similar I found the styles, but that is a topic for another time. I think what is most impressive about One Simple Act is that Macomber acknowledges that generosity is something one needs to work on, in order that it becomes habitual, and draws on a wide variety of sources to show its effects. Likewise impressive are the 'simple acts' which Macomber suggests as ways to enact generosity and keep track of it; these, I think, are crucial to the work, as a way of allowing those who try to learn the habit of generosity to monitor and record their progress and measure, in some small way, something whose effects are ultimately immeasurable.


  1. Further to your comment on systems thinking, surely continuously working on simple acts of generosity, gratitude, encouragement, &c are good examples of focus on process.

  2. I agree, mon frère. Macomber frequently makes statements about how surprised she is in retrospect when she looks over her gratitude journal (or some other journal she keeps that relate to generosity - she seems to have several) at how generous she has actually been able to be.

    It makes me think of something C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere (in more than one place, I believe) about how worrying about whether we have such-and-such quality, we become incapable of actually possessing it.


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