I received an interesting compliment the other day. At least I took it as a compliment, even though in the past I would have had some other story as to what the person was really trying to say. It was from the main director of the a capella group in which I sing and after we performed a mid-term concert she said to me as we were walking out, “Wow, it’s fun to watch you in the group, you really light up when you sing”. I smiled, said “Thank you” and then watched my own internal reaction. My first thought was that it was a fantastic thing for her to reflect to me and confirmed the reality that I truly do come alive when I sing. I absolutely love it and it cultivates joy in my life in a way that few other activities do. My second thought was a little different. I thought to myself that maybe her comment was what she might say to someone who isn’t that great of a singer and yet she still wants to say something nice. I suddenly started to wonder if I had been off tune or if I sang too loud or moved a little too much. My insecurities started to creep in and I suddenly was thinking about performing rather than singing.
I found ground again by touching in to why it is I sing. It isn’t to perform and while I love when I’m able to find a tight harmony or the group makes a chord that gives me chills, for the most part I sing to find joy. And the only reason I perform is because something different happens when our group sings for an audience. Suddenly there is energy in each of us that shows up more fully and more powerfully and the audience becomes a mirror for the joy that singing provides. In fact the only thing I love more than lighting up when I sing is seeing other people light up. It’s the subtle toe tapping of the reserved person in the far corner, the edges of a smile on someone who recognizes a tune, or the unleashed abandon of someone who starts singing along as if they have just been released from a prison of silence.
I sing because I love what happens inside of me when I do. It’s the internal joy rather than the external reward that I’m after. And while years of singing have tuned my voice to the point where I actually know deep down that I’m a pretty good singer, that wasn’t so true in the beginning. I had to practice and the only reason I kept practicing was because I loved it and it brought me alive. It’s this point that brings me to what I see as the importance of how we compliment those we love and especially our children. It’s so easy to make it about the performance and how good they are at something but it’s totally different when we look for the places in which they light up and give them reinforcement for what they are already feeling inside.
I’m learning this as a parent, to recognize the fun my son is having on the soccer field as much or more than the goal he scores. I read recently that the one of the most important messages we can give our children is that we love watching them do whatever they are involved in at that moment. Whether recognizing the wrinkled brow of curious effort as they approach a difficult math problem, noticing the way in which they share when no one is watching, or complimenting their enthusiasm for a sport, I believe it makes a difference in how they begin to tune their efforts. Do they tune only to outcome or external praise or do they tune to the joy and aliveness inside that keeps them practicing? It reminds me of an excerpt from the poem, “Repeatedly We Are Asked” by one of my favorite poets, Mark Nepo, where he asks, “Do we better the song through practice, or better ourselves through the singing”?
I would have to respond that I believe both for ourselves and for our children that when we better ourselves through that which brings us alive we are strengthening a connection to the essence of who we are, what we love, and how we bring that into the world to help others in lighting up their own joy.
In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing. For to miss the joy is to miss all.”
What joy brings you alive? I’d love to hear your comments!