Tag Archives: friends

The Power of Compliments

Girlfriends Holding Flowers

Cristin slammed the kitchen door behind her when she came home from work a few weeks ago. She threw her Starbucks apron on a chair. “Mom, a new girl named Ashley started today, and I’m supposed to train her. But I can’t stand her!”

I looked up from the bills I’d been paying at the table. “I’m sorry, Hon. What, exactly, is the problem?”

“Well, first of all, she’s rude. She obviously doesn’t know how to operate the cash register, even though she worked at another branch of Starbucks for a year. And when I tried to show her how to do it, she told me she doesn’t like register—she prefers making drinks. I’m the supervisor. She’s a barista. She’s supposed to do what I ask.”

“So what did you do?”

“To be nice, I put her on bar. But she’s so slow. Instead of getting the drinks out, she flirts with every male customer and backs up the line. And when I asked her—nicely—to try to speed things up, she told me I was jealous of her beauty. Mom, she’s not even pretty.”

I took my reading glasses off my nose, folded them, and placed them on the table. In my mind I was in back in aerobics class in the early 1980s. There, always flirting with Ken, the hunky male instructor, was a young woman named Lynn.

How annoying she was. The way she always got to class early to make sure she would snag a spot up front. The way she tousled her hair before the mirror to ensure it was its Farrah Fawcett best. The way she giggled and chatted with Ken as he was setting up his music. The way she wagged her shiny-leotarded hips to the pulse of “It’s Raining Men.”

Every time I saw her I was peeved at her, but I was twice as peeved at myself. I strive to be a warm and giving person, to treat everyone I encounter as I’d like to be treated myself. Lynn put me to the test.

Whenever I entered the health club and felt my pique begin to rise, I’d focus mind, spirit, and body in an effort to beat it down. First, I’d reason with myself: Jan, you don’t even know her; she’s never done anything to hurt you. Next, I’d turn to prayer: Please God, give me patience with that flirt. Then, I’d take pragmatic action, moving as far from Lynn as possible and averting my eyes.

But one day as I performed this ritual, Lynn came up to me and smiled. “Cute legwarmers,” she said. “They go great with your leotard.”

We wound up having coffee after class. She told me she taught high school math. Her school was a taxing place to work—cantankerous principal, rowdy students—so she rushed to aerobics every evening to help relieve her stress.

She told me she was recently divorced and felt lonely and down about herself. Her husband had been having an affair with a woman he claimed was more attractive.

She also asked me to talk about myself, and when I did, I could tell she listened closely. She insisted on paying for the coffee. Within weeks, we became friends.

I learned quite a bit from Lynn: How a person’s annoying behavior often masks insecurity and pain. How compliments can open people up and shatter resentments.

I was lucky Lynn had thought to praise my outfit. By doing so she’d disarmed me and enabled our friendship to begin. And I realized that this could have happened sooner if I’d stood up to my hostility when it first reared its ugly head by choosing to give Lynn a sincere compliment myself.

I’ve done this many times since I met Lynn. Whenever I feel irked by someone, I try my best to move beyond my gut reaction, discern the person’s strengths, and extend an honest compliment.

This has rarely been difficult to do. When I was bugged by a law school classmate who frequently brown-nosed professors, I told her I admired her mastery of Torts. She thanked me and confessed that she was struggling with her courses and fretted she wouldn’t earn good grades.

When I was piqued by a new lawyer colleague who sent me frequent, needless memos, I told him I appreciated his hard work. He explained he was grateful to have joined our firm; when he lost his previous job, he feared he’d have to practice on his own.

When I was peeved by a young Polish priest who gave incomprehensible sermons, I told him I enjoyed the way he sang the Mass. He smiled and said he’d been striving to reduce his Polish accent, which he worried was too thick to understand.

Did the compliments I gave stop the behaviors that had bugged me? Sometimes, but that’s beside the point. It’s not my place to try to change other people; it’s my job to change myself and become tolerant and embracing. This takes constant work.

Did the praise that I extended always lead to lasting friendships? No, just occasionally. But it always dissolved the enmity I felt and smoothed relationships.

So I looked at Cristin. “You know, Hon. Maybe Ashley acts the way she does because she’s feeling insecure. She’s new at your Starbucks, after all. Or maybe she’s jealous since you’re the one in charge. Or maybe she has problems outside work. Have you ever tried to praise her?”

Just yesterday, Cristin came in the kitchen door at the end of her shift. This time I was putting groceries in the fridge. Cristin took a milk container from the table and handed it to me.

“Mom, I forgot to tell you, I gave Ashley a compliment a couple of weeks ago. I told her she has great rapport with customers. Right away she began helping more with tasks and doing better work. She’s even stopped flirting with the guys. And today we went out to lunch together. She’s really kind of nice.”

Originally published in Good Letters.


The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago)

IMG_1996_2My Uncle Jimmy died last fall at the age of ninety. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to New York when young and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was the husband of my aunt for sixty-one years, the frolicsome father of my two cousins, a regular part of my life until I married and moved away.

I can still see my uncle clearly as he was in January 1994. The way his brown eyes sparkled. The way his thick hair swept back from his forehead. The way he arm-wrestled my four-year-old son to laughter, easing tears caused by my father’s death.

That was the last time I saw my Uncle Jimmy. Almost twenty years ago.

On the day my Uncle Jimmy died, I didn’t even know that he was ill. He’d lived in Florida for two decades and I in Seattle for three. Through those years our correspondence was limited, consisting only of Christmas and Easter cards with a few scribbled pleasantries. Some years, even cards were lacking.

No, on the day my uncle died, I wasn’t at his bedside hugging him. Instead, I was in a Spanish cathedral embracing a very different Jimmy, not one of flesh and bones, but of gold-plate and jewels, the bust of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, whom Spaniards call Santiago.

According to Christian tradition, after Jesus’ resurrection, James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Gospel. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he was beheaded, becoming the first Christian martyr. His acolytes carried his corpse to Palestine’s coast and placed it on an unpiloted boat that miraculously crossed the Mediterranean, passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, and landed on the shore of Spain among the fiord-like rías of Galicia.

In Galicia, the body was buried in a small shrine and the town of Santiago grew around it. By the twelfth century, an immense Romanesque cathedral had been built over James’ tomb and was attracting half a million pilgrims each year. People walked there from all over Europe, hundreds and hundreds of miles, crossing mountains, valleys, plains, and rivers, risking starvation, dehydration, injury, raids by bandits, death. For them, the pilgrimage was an enactment of the spiritual journey to God and the hardships were tests of faith.

Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually walk El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, they now come from all around the world and include believers and non-believers alike. During the last two weeks of my Uncle Jimmy’s life, my husband and I were two of them.

The Way is very much like leapfrog. Though the most travelled route is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, some pilgrims walk from farther points—Rome, Zagreb, Warsaw—others from spots nearer Santiago—Pamplona, Leon, Sarria.

All along The Way, pilgrims encounter each other, walk together for a distance, talk in spontaneous pidgins of English-Spanish-French-German-Italian. They lose each other at rest stops or to slow or quicken their pace, then rediscover each other at intervals of minutes, hours, days.  On the road, in restaurants, and in refugios, they bond through a cycle of challenges, triumphs, chow, chat.

We spied our first fellow peregrinos in an otherwise empty hotel breakfast room on the morning we set out from Leon. They were sitting at another table, a chic Spanish-speaking couple in brand new hiking gear. Finishing our pastries and coffees, the four of us stood, heaved our packs, smiled—neither my husband nor I speak Spanish—went outside and found the route. We walked neck in neck for hours. When the road split, we turned left and they turned right.

Two days later we recognized them in a restaurant in Rabanal, heard them speaking English to another couple, introduced ourselves. By the end of our conversation, we’d come to know them as Miguel and Liliana from Colombia. By Villafranca, we were dining with them, sharing insights on how to deal with blisters, manage backpacks, parent children, face midlife.

Likewise, in bits and pieces on The Way, we came to know Kyung Mi from Seoul, who clicked her walking sticks on gravel, offered me a parasol when the sun grew hot. And the group of students from the Catholic Newman Center at University of Washington, who early mornings shared the glow of headlamps and song-filled sunrise prayers. And Matteo from Genoa, who climbed a mountain pass with me, insisting I practice my Italian to distract me from my bleeding feet.

When pilgrims reach Santiago, they embrace in front of the cathedral. Strangers only weeks before, they now regard themselves as friends. Together they enter the cathedral and walk their last steps together up stairs that lead behind the altar. There they hug the gilded statue of Saint James, then descend to the Pilgrims’ Mass.

At Mass I gazed around me at hundreds of peregrinos, many now dear. People who had walked into my life, touched my heart, and would soon depart. People like so many others—my parents and grandparents, lost neighbors, colleagues, friends—who had once been marvelously present but had vanished due to distance, distractions, death.

People like my Uncle Jimmy.

I wanted to put my arms around them, all the people of my life. Those I’d known well and those I wished I’d known better. Those here and now. Those there and then. I wanted to hold them forever in a way that Facebook can’t.

Towards the end of the Pilgrim’s Mass, eight red-robed attendants launched the botafumeiro, a massive silver incense dispenser hung by a sturdy rope that swings an enormous arc across the church transept. At the first oscillation, the organ began to boom as every eye in the cathedral lifted to heaven with the fragrant smoke.

Then I understood. The Way doesn’t end in Santiago. And if we continue on it, loving those who cross our path, we can hope to be united with each other in God’s realm.


Photo by Vincent Samudovsky