Being Present

In The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz describes years of his experience getting to know and interacting with patients. One section, titled “How praise can cause a loss of confidence,” explores the idea that empty or thoughtless praise actually damages self esteem, instead of boosting it.

Brain Pickings describes the 1998 study that Grosz sites in his book:

[The study] divided 128 children ages 10 and 11 into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group was praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems.

Grosz goes on to say that many parents, not wanting to dole out criticism or discourage their children, go to the other extreme of doling out unwarranted praise. But, he says, empty praise the same as empty criticism. ”If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.”

Later he describes the interaction between remedial reading teacher Charlotte Stiglitz and a 4-year-old boy: “Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to ‘what a child did and how that child did it.’ … Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed, she listened. She was present.”

An article on Grosz in Sunday Times explains further, “Banned from praise and criticism, how should parents encourage their children? For Grosz, who decided to write his book when his first child was born – so as to pass on some of the life lessons he had learnt – the answer is simple: ‘Just listen to what your child wants to tell you. About what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about.’”

If this is the kind of relationship that benefits children, how much more does God want and deserve our presence toward Him? Of course, God is worthy of any praise we give Him; praise to Him is never unwarranted. But Christ warned against thoughtless interaction with God. In Matthew 6:7 He says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words.”

And as children need, God wants our mindfulness, our attention, our presence. He wants us to listen closely, to respond, to interact with interest and awareness. In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet questions God and then waits, eager for God’s answer: “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what He will say to me, and what He will answer concerning my complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1). And Hosea 9:17 warns, “My God will reject them because they have not listened to Him.” Even those declaring to worship and praise Him are deceived if they aren’t attending to His will. Isaiah 29:13 (quoted in Matthew 15:9) says, “This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.”

The examples we have in the Bible of those closest to God (Christ, Moses, David, and many others), all had deep relationships with Him that included not only praise, but also discussion, meditation, questioning, training, commitment, and countless other facets. They came to God with their hearts and minds, not just with mouths speaking acclaim.

We are not just parrots of praise. He created us with the ability to come to Him attentive, listening, interested in His passions and His plan, ready to respond, and eager to hear His input. He wants us as members of His family, not just decorations proclaiming His glory. And certainly, we can honor Him more fully through learning from Him and becoming like Him. We can only achieve this by being truly present with Him.

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