compliments: a gift received is a gift given

The last weeks of school, a colleague and I helped some stellar seniors develop, finesse, and practice their graduation speeches. And they rocked it! As I sat and listened to them, a river of emotions swelled within the banks of my heart: joy, honor, pride, sadness, closure, gratitude, humility.

Naturally after those speeches, as is the blessing of being surrounded by good-hearted people, I was showered with compliments for my coaching. And my responses to those compliments vacillated throughout this range:

“It wasn’t just me.”

Change the subject.

“They worked their asses off.”

<Insert minimizing joke here.>

“So how are you?”

Pretend like I didn’t hear.

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on how I receive compliments. Or rather, sadly, how I reject them: how I catch them, wad them up, pop them in my mouth, chew them, and launch them, with a trail of dangling drool, back at the person. And in my reflection, I reverse the roles, feeling the sting of my own saliva-drenched compliment smacking me in the face. I hate when people reject, minimize, or divert my compliments. I am known to emphatically say when people do so: “Thank you Mary,” as a way to model for them how to respond to my compliment. But to model is not just about creating a sentence frame… to model is to live a certain way, to not just carve a path but to walk first on it…to embrace the receipt of compliments as much as I embrace the gift of compliments.

In my reflection, I’ve wondered: what does a compliment signify? It is a present, bow-tied and delivered with an anticipatory, heavy-lidded bow of the eyes. It is a kiss, echoed in the thundering hooves of a heartbeat. It is a party, decorated with polk-a-dot banners and balloons of joy. It is a standing ovation, a thousand feet rooted into the earth lifting the honored into the sky. It is a rumor of the Divine, sacred glimpses into something beyond the wall-papered halls of humans.

How dare I reject that.

Part of my reflection has been thinking about how I have received other gifts that blossomed from someone’s garden of love. When Dave asked me to marry him–with a ring tucked into a plastic egg from a quarter-operated toy dispenser from CVS, in the red F-150 outside Chili’s during a rain storm, not on his knee physically but only in his heart (and perhaps in his version of the story)–I squealed; I cried; I said “yes;” I leaned in for a kiss; I celebrated; I basked in the moment, elongating it into an eternal ribbon in my heart.

I did not play humble.

I did not change the subject.

I did not pretend like I didn’t hear.

I did not minimize the moment by making a joke.

And in my surrender to the compliment, not only did I receive a gift, but I gave one as well.

When I think of that story, and when I think of my own moments of complimenting others, I realize that giving a compliment is giving a gift. A compliment comes from a place of love, a place of dignity, a place of light.

When I am the recipient, I need to honor–with authenticity and vulnerability and joy and grace–this sacred passing of love, dignity, and light.