January 14, 2005

The Man Who Praised

There was once a boy who did not know how to praise—had never been taught it. The people who raised him thought that cursing and complaining, envy and insult, were the smart way, and when they heard praise they thought it was stupidity, or a trick played by the cunning on the naïve. The boy grew up thinking this was normal. But then he went to live in a different place, and he heard people praising, and he wondered, "Where is the cursing, the complaining, the envy, the insult?" He missed it. Yet this new thing was good.

He tried to praise but he didn't know how. It sounded wrong whenever he tried it. Those around him praised him for trying, but he didn't trust what they said. It made him mad, and he decided that rather than join the praisers, he would introduce cursing and complaining, envy and insult among them.

But when he tried it, no one responded, and he found himself alone.

So he grudgingly joined them, resigned to doing his inadequate best. Slowly he practiced praising, and after many years he felt he had almost got to the point where he was doing a good imitation of the praisers around him. They, at least, seemed to be fooled—which made him wonder whether they were all fooling each other. He told himself to get rid of that thought, to accept that they were sincerely praising. And in doing so, he began to feel for the first time that he too was almost ready to begin to really praise. And it caught him by surprise, once he made this first admission, how fast everything followed and helter–skelter he was doing what he had never expected to do.

He went around praising all day, praising everything, and it felt like the first good and right thing he had ever known. I'll never feel the old way again, he thought. I'll never curse and complain, envy and insult.

But the very mention of cursing and complaining, of envying and insulting, worked on him, made him remember the bitter past, and he felt the raging honesty of his youth fill him again, the lonely strength in knowing the worst. Tears flowed from his eyes; hot anger reddened his cheeks; howls burst from his lungs; a deadening chill froze his limbs.

This is real, he told himself. The other was a fake, I never really learned how to praise, I couldn't from the start. And he couldn't face the praisers anymore. He hid in a hole and listened to them praising outside as he shriveled into the darkness.

Good for you, he told himself, for not falling for that praise scam.

And it sounded weirdly familiar to him, like a bird calling through prison bars. The sound of himself praising.

He tried it again: Good for you, good for me.

A pleasing song.

Was it anything like the praising outside? He listened. It was. He couldn't deny it. Was this wrong, this wanting to praise? Could he be punished for it?

There he was in his dark hole and he wanted to praise something, so what could he do? He praised the dark hole. He praised the mistake of having entered it.

And he understood that his weeping was only the rains of spring, and his red anger was only the heat of summer, and his howling was only the wind of autumn, and his frozen chill was only winter, and it would all come and go and come again.

He rushed outside, telling everyone about the wonderful dark hole he had found and what he had learned in it. They didn't understand anything about dark holes, but they praised him anyway for coming out of it.

You'll never have to go into that dark hole again, they told him.

No, no, he corrected—and yet even that was praise. I'll go back! Whenever I want, the hole's still there. It's as beautiful as any place.

And he praised all his seasons, and praised the years of curse and complaint, of envy and insult, for they were a privilege that had been given to him and not to other praisers. And from one moment to the next, he never knew when he would curse or complain, envy or insult. He could not lose any of it. It was all praise.