Often, whether we are trying to give or receive encouragement, the efforts are often spectacularly unsuccessful. That which was meant to console or cheer up someone only ends up infuriating them, because it comes off as teasing or attacking. Yet clearly encouragement is something we wish to do, and that some people (even if not we ourselves) do well , and something that is necessary given the sorts of difficulties we face, which often drag on for a long time with little or no seeming improvement, despite our greatest efforts. Encouragement is, after all, the stirring up of courage and hope within someone who may not be naturally predisposed to be particularly courageous or hopeful, so that they may successfully do combat with fear, doubt, worry, and anxiety, with which many of us are very familiar. It is an immensely important task, one which is necessary not only in terms of the quality of life, but indeed for some of us a necessary quality even for mere survival in the face of the stress of life. Given that we are often not the best at encouraging ourselves, the existence of a robust and kind social network of friends and (hopefully) family is essential, given that we often need far more encouragement, and far more focused encouragement, than we often let on. Few of us wear our hearts on our sleeves, and even if we are communicative about areas where we want drastic improvement in life, it is not always easy for useful assistance to be provided.
In light of this combined difficulty and importance, I would like to examine the ground on which encouragement seems to falter the most. It appears, at least from my personal experience and observation, that encouragement fails most often in the context of that encouragement, which often renders the content of that attempted encouragement either ineffective or (even worse) offensive. In examining the context of encouragement, I would like to keep the focus most clearly on the recipient of that encouragement. After all, the whole worth and value of encouragement is in the benefit that it provides to the person who receive the encouragement. It does us no good to feel as if we are being loving and understanding to others and a great help if they do not feel encouraged and loved and understood and helped by our efforts, for we only deceive ourselves even as we may unintentionally hurt those we are wishing to help. The fact that these wounds are without intention does not mean that they are any less real or any less a barrier to the friendships and relationships we wish to build and maintain. As is generally the case, it may be difficult for such hurts and concerns to be communicated effectively in either direction, which makes this all the more problematic of an issue.
There is a great paradox at the heart of encouragement. On the one hand, it is something that we need to come from the outside, because if we could encourage ourselves effectively on the inside, we would have little need of encouragement in the first place. However, the accurate and helpful reception of encouragement is far from a straightforward task. As encouragement comes from outside, it must be recognized and felt in a way that is helpful and beneficial if it is to do any good to the person receiving the help or to the relationship between the parties giving and receiving the encouragement. That which comes from outside is often viewed intensely critically by those seeking to guard their heart and that which comes under the label of encouragement often comes with a sting or a hidden accusation attached to it which leads it to be viewed as an attack, which is seldom helpful in providing encouragement. In some cases, this is because of the lack of skill of the person giving the encouragement, or a lack of concern to the sensitivities of others. At times this is because the person being encouraged has not done a good enough job of communicating what is and what is not acceptable communication. At times it is because encouragement comes from someone with whom there is no relationship (or at least no positive relationship), which negates any kind of good that someone might try to give. At other times encouragement fails because it comes on ground that is so sensitive to deal with that no one may be considered safe to step on such ground. In all such cases, encouragement fails to be of benefit to the recipient when it leads them to feel attacked, whether it is because someone they do not like is trying to get involved in their personal business or because someone is far too close for comfort.
In giving encouragement effectively, we have to examine our own motives. Is our motive to appear like an expert in something, or to appear as some kind of authority? If so, our encouragement will likely not succeed unless we are asked by others for advice because they recognize our expertise already, because if we give advice or encouragement unbidden, our gift often comes not from a genuine desire to help, but rather from a selfish desire to gain power or influence or authority, which will likely and entirely understandably be resented. More charitably, our desire to encourage may be prompted by a general desire for happiness on the part of others and simply may intersect with the lives of others as encouragement. Here, though, that general desire for well-being may not always be interpreted in a friendly way, as encouragement is highly context dependent, and the context of the recipient is frequently problematic. One example, not at random, should suffice. I find it intensely frustrating that my ability to make friends among young women in my congregation has been greatly hindered by the fact that such young women have been “encouraged” further along than either of us would wish, leaving them sometimes feeling uncomfortable about going to church because they feel pressured about dating me. Since I feel I am socially awkward enough that I do not need any help in driving away others or creating difficulties for myself, these attempts at encouragement are not appreciated at all. It is hard for me to be charitable to the motives of those who cause me such personal harm in such a sensitive area of life. The only such encouragement that would be welcome would either be a simple expression of a desire to pray for happiness and well-being or encouragement that came from the ladies themselves. In such cases motive would not be seen as a problem, because people providing encouragement in areas where they are personally involved is far more welcome than third-party interference.
Another area where encouragement may be aided is a shared context. To the extent that encouragement is based on something that two people share, it is a lot more effective than something that is only relayed second-hand. That which encourages us (or discourages us) often relates to matters of timing and circumstance. If someone shares experiences with us that are encouraging if brought to mind, then they are better able to encourage us precisely by bringing those memories to mind, so that we may have more pleasant material to ruminate upon than our usual and natural thoughts and reflections. On the other hand, trying to encourage someone by explaining something that they did not witness or experience is far less helpful, especially because it only engages the intellect and not the heart. It is also why those people who encourage us the best are those people who share the best experiences with us, the good times as well as the bad times, because encouragement is about placing things in context, and it requires a shared positive context to improve a perspective that is shaded too negatively. How to do this is a tricky matter, but an important one.
After all, our wish to encourage others itself should presuppose love and outgoing concern for others, even if we may not always feel very fondly about them because of experiences. Yet, despite our own feelings and intents, other people (for a wide variety of reasons) may not have positive feelings for us. If we cannot encourage people from closeby because they do not wish us to be close, sometimes we must quietly pray from afar rather than to engage in efforts which are likely to be counterproductive. If we know that we are dealing with people who are sensitive about certain subjects, we may simply have to choose not to go into that territory because it will only make them upset, unless they trust us to be sufficiently gentle and tender with our sensitivities. This trust is hard to earn, and sometimes all too easy to lose. The whole point of encouragement, though, is doing well for others. If this means we must care for others privately because it cannot be shown appropriately, so be it. If it means we must be quiet where we would prefer to be loud, or gentle where we would prefer to be strong, or careful where we would prefer to be bold, or restrained where we would prefer to be wild, it is not our own preferences that encouragement is really about, but doing well and wishing well for others. After all, those who wish to encourage us are under the same constraints concerning our own preferences. To the greatest extent we are able to know the preferences of those we wish to encourage, let us act accordingly, and let us place no unnecessary barriers to the encouragement of others.
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