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​​The Power of an Encouraging Word

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Not far from where we live are several large fields that often act as resting and roosting grounds for a multitude of Canadian Geese. I love watching them. One minute they are loitering noisily in the grass and the next minute two or three hundred of them will, without warning, take to the air, beating their wings in a rapid flurry. For half a minute or so the sky turns from light grey to a murky charcoal grey as the birds churn the air and establish a flight pattern. Sometimes they form a wobbling letter S in the sky or sometimes a W. But more often than not, they fly in a V formation. I had always thought the reason why had to do with aerodynamics, wind factor, or drag. I had assumed that the bird at the point was acting as a windbreak for the rest of the birds.  Recently I was talking with a friend of mine who is a passionate birder. He told me that the reason why geese typically prefer to fly in a tight V formation had nothing to do with aerodynamics. It had everything to do with group dynamics. The birds at the edges of the V formation can’t see the bird at the point. They can only see the bird that is in front them. But if they maintain the V shaped formation, they can hear the bird at the point. And this is why they fly that way: they need to hear each other to know when to change direction or to adjust their speed. This is the reason why they honk so much. The honking gives them valuable information about where everyone is in the formation and where the whole group is going. “And,” my friend said with a big smile, “honking is how geese encourage each other. They honk when they sense a bird in the group is getting tired and it’s time to slow down. They honk if a bird has started to stray. They honk to tell each other to keep going.”

I’ve been thinking a bit about this honking business. It seems to me that people are very much like geese. We need to know where we are going and if we’re headed in the right direction. We need to hear from trusted friends if we’re straying. And when we get tired, we need to be encouraged.

I’ve been lucky to have some encouragers in my life. I’ll never forget the time when some thirty five years ago, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, said to me one day, “Gina, you’ve got an interesting imagination. I’m excited to see how you’ll use that some day.” This came in response to an essay we were supposed to write about what we’d done over summer break. It was supposed to be a factual account. I hadn’t done much of anything, so I just made up a bunch of stuff: I completed a solo climb of Mt. Everest (without an oxygen tank), had been hired on a stunt crew for Star Wars but quit to start fifth grade, and had struck up a friendship with Chuck Norris who told me I had hands and feet of steel. Yes, I had lied shamelessly in that essay. But instead of pointing out the obvious, Mrs. Williams saw an opportunity to encourage a clearly delusional eleven year old. That act of kindness made an indelible imprint on me. From that day forward, because someone told me I had an imagination, I believed it. I began writing short stories that no one (thank God) will ever see. But I kept at it because someone told me I could. Now, thirty years later, I write full time and I use my imagination and I love every minute I spend writing.

How is any of this relevant to anyone else? Why should anybody care about how geese fly or a fifth grade teacher’s comment to a student? The answer is because encouragement empowers people. A well-timed, authentic, positive word can radically alter someone’s opinion and/or beliefs about him or herself. I remember just a few months ago going to a gym to meet with a personal trainer named Joe. I was very nervous about this. I didn’t want Joe to see how unfit I really was. Silly, I know, because the whole point of meeting with a trainer is so that they can honestly assess strengths and weaknesses and develop a plan to address those. Anyway, one of the assessment pieces was to do as many pull-ups as possible. I gripped the bar and I pulled with my arms as hard as I possibly could. My body barely moved. I dangled there like a sad piñata. Joe looked at me and said, “Nice hanging position. Good grip on the bar. This is a good start. In a few months you’ll be doing pull-ups like nobody’s business. ” He could have said “Wow. That’s the saddest attempt at a pull-up I’ve seen in over ten years, “ or “Gee. You really ARE out of shape.” Instead, he took what was clearly a disappointing moment for me and chose to find something positive in it.

This is the power of encouragement. It transforms what could be a negative event, experience or feeling into something useful and positive. Because of that trainer’s insistence of finding something positive to build on, I have kept going back to his gym where I’ve noticed others following the example he’s set. I’m hearing people complement one another on their effort level and cheer and shout when someone gets a PR. This kind of encouragement is contagious. When I hear a positive word it makes me want to give one to someone else, as well. So on those days when it seems like nothing is going my way, I try to make it a point to say something encouraging to someone else. It’s me honking and struggling to keep up at the end of V. And it never fails: that person will smile and offer a positive word to me. And then all this struggling and flapping in the wind feels like it makes a little more sense. I’m flapping alongside others and they have their struggles, too. We are all wayfarers and sojourners on a long journey. We need each other to remember where we’re going and why. We need to remember we’re not journeying all alone.

Member Gina Ochsner