One of the hardest parts of the human experience is accepting compliments. We don’t know what to say when people have nice things to say to us, we invent reasons why what they’re saying is colored by ulterior motives or is somehow not as meaningful as it might be, and ultimately we simply don’t believe that what they’re saying about us is noteworthy, because what we’re accustomed to and believe to be normal totally isn’t worth mentioning, right?
On Saturday, I went cliff jumping at Percy Priest Lake outside of Nashville. It was a sublime day, a warm late-September breeze and still-warm water beckoning in spite of the overnight lows that are dipping down just low enough to start the leaves changing. I was surrounded by fast friends, the types of people you’ve known for ten minutes and feel like you’ve known for ten years. Also the types of people who count to three and jump off the cliff while they’re still saying “two.” There was nothing to do but hike to the high points, jump, and repeat. And, of course, after a few rounds of this, stick my waterproof phone in my pocket, jump, and capture a couple of blurry images of my friends jumping from water-level.
After doing this, I swam with phone in hand back to the low point where you can climb out of the water. It’s a solid quarter mile, which is quite a ways to swim one-handed with Chacos on. As I approached the first potential exit spot, a guy looked down and said, “I hope that phone’s waterproof!”
“It is,” I replied. “But could I get you to take it from me so I can climb out?”
He walked down to the low ledge, placed my phone on dry ground, then offered a hand to help me out of the water.
I eagerly took it and climbed up to face him and his friend.
“I’m Luke,” he said.
“And I’m Erica,” his friend beside him said. They were sitting on a rock about five feet above the water, looking across at the sparsely-developed, thickly-wooded shoreline and few curious islands that dot Percy Priest.
We discussed what I was up to on my trip and Luke told me that he was in the military and attending Vanderbilt Law School. He said he came from little but knew that he could live the life he wanted to live by working for the Air Force, studying law, and spending his free time in beautiful places like this one.
We agreed heartily that “Lots of people don’t come out here, because they have to be told a place is a certain type of beautiful before they want to see it. Lots of people think this is just a dirty lake on the outskirts of town.”
As I echoed his sentiments and highlighted how much my recent experiences had moved me to do what I was doing now, he got a bit more serious and his piercing light blue eyes began to sparkle. He’d had a couple of beers, so they moved perhaps a half-step behind the speed of his daydreams, and it created the sense that he was reading something written on a teleprompter, even as he made direct eye contact with me.
“I don’t know how you feel about religion, are you a spiritual person at all?” he suddenly said.
I answered with the affirmative indifference that all too often characterizes our statements of nervous, tentative conviction, but it seemed to be the perfect response for his train of thought.
“I see all these people who pray for something all the time, something they want so badly, then when they get it they stop praying. And they forget to say thank you.”
I agreed and was taken aback at the same time.
“And that’s the problem. I think God is up there and answering prayers, but we take that for granted. We want something, we get it, we’re done until we need something else. And as soon as we get what we wanted, we aren’t even happy about it anymore. To me, that’s the biggest sin. The sin of forgetting.”
Luke stared pensively out towards the shimmering lake and the few boats moving back and forth across the water.
He’d struck something in himself and in me as well. I often fear that I’ll lose whatever momentum or gratitude I have when I’m riding particularly high. This is part of the human experience—we are incapable of maintaining momentum or awareness indefinitely. But we do get to decide what we do in the high and low moments alike.
Later that night, I was talking to a girl I met through a couple of degrees of separation at a swing dancing event in downtown Nashville. When she asked what exactly I was doing on my road trip as a way of small talk, I told her I was on an aimless meander as a natural response to the events that’d taken place in my life in recent months. Her accent and picture-perfect Southern Belle-plus-sass appearance (beautiful face, pearls, dress, Converse) added to the sense that this conversation was taking place inside a Flannery O’Connor story. I pulled up a few pictures of tents and trout and bridges, and she looked on with interest before looking up at me. “I feel like I have nothing to say now. I don’t have any stories like that at all. I’m an accountant.”
This struck me in multiple ways.
“Everybody has stories that someone else will find riveting,” I almost implored her. “I think of what I’m doing as normal. There are so many things about your life experience that I have probably never imagined.”
She looked at me in utter disbelief with eyes in a different shade of blue that tugged at the heartstrings. “Well, I don’t know. I really just go to work and live here in Nashville. You’re doing something so cool.” It wasn’t until later that I thought about Luke and the way that I had normalized my experience and lost much of the wonderment that others feel at it. In fact, I’d tried more than once to reassure her that I was “normal.” She was doing the same with her life and her story, and both of us were guilty. As a writer, I often feel compelled to place my life and being under microscope and scalpel in hopes that it’ll tell a relatable or true story to someone who needs to hear it.
But then I found some of my encouragement and compliments falling on ears as deaf as mine twice in less than twenty four hours, and I realized how prone we are to commit the sin of forgetting. Those of us who are wired to work hard are blind to the beauty and root cause of our successes, those who strive to love well simply can’t believe that they are deeply loved and cherished in return.
I have found myself saying more and more often lately that it’s often more beautiful to behold someone who appreciates something fully than it is to behold the thing itself, and that refrain continues to hold true. A 1984 Porsche Carrera might make me giddy every time I turn the key, but it makes me a million times giddier still to hear someone I just met who is now riding shotgun say, “I have never felt this cool in my whole life. I’ll never feel this cool again.” I didn’t buy the car to feel cool, but that simple, profound pleasure in a shared moment is one of the most beautiful things this life has to offer. And with the windows down and the volume on the Dixie Chicks turned way up, that only grows truer.