National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Melting the Dreamsicle of praise


Albert Ellis, the cranky old papa of cognitive psychology, calls self-esteem the worst sickness that can befall a human being. I read his words with horror -- and a click of recognition. When we are children, praise comes as smooth and sweet and uncomplicated as an orange Dreamsicle. Yet the more we are praised -- and I was, lavishly, by a loving mother and approving teachers -- the more pressure we feel.

Somehow, we must continue whatever it was we did to merit that sweet reward. Soon we find ourselves running after the ice-cream truck every afternoon. Sometimes we grow fat on the Dreamsicles; sometimes the sugar makes us hyper, or the other kids’ envy makes us pull back sharply. Still, we keep seeking, consciously or unconsciously, and the praise keeps coming.

Doing something well is deeply satisfying. Doing it because someone else’s reaction will validate us, less so. I update my resumé, pile up awards, save complimentary letters to re-read on a day of self-doubt -- and none of it works. Because whatever I did, it’s over. And I’d be just as valuable if I’d never done it at all -- or if I’d done it and no one had smiled. Logically, I know this. But deep down, I’m afraid that without confirmation, I wouldn’t enjoy what I do. Maybe I wouldn’t even know how to feel good.

A typo; I keyed “god.” Maybe on purpose.

Religion conveys an entirely different sort of self-esteem, one predicated upon God’s love for us. And in human hands, that, too, can be dangerous. God might love us unconditionally, but we sure manage to imply a lot of conditions to regulate each other’s behavior. We praise acts that seem the very opposite of conventional self-esteem -- humility, generosity, self-sacrifice, pacifism -- and remind each other that God loves such behavior. We catalogue signs of holiness and acts of mercy, building our own composite of the most lovable person. We ask ourselves “What Would Jesus Do?” with the subtext, “What Would God Want Us to Do?”

As though we know.

“I do not think it is good,” Montaigne remarked in another context, “to confine the divine power thus.”

We forget that God doesn’t set conditions; we forget that even if God did, we don’t know what they’d be.

Oh, come on, I tell myself. We can guess. Do I expect exhortations to imitate Satan? Daily reminders that God will love me if I’m mean and selfish? No. I just want a way to ward off the smugness of doing what I think God wants -- and the tacit condemnation of anyone who isn’t doing the same. Such thoughts disguise themselves the instant they surface. They masquerade as sympathy for those who don’t enjoy wonderful bursts of transcendence at a religious ritual every week. They masquerade as an over-deliberate tolerance of behavior I actually consider undesirable.

They turn “religious” people like me into insufferable prigs. And they program us to repeat certain acts again and again without ever rethinking them. Maybe this Sunday my soul will crave the raw solitude of nature, not a repetition of the Lord’s Supper. Maybe God would love me more if I were so caught up in the Spirit that I didn’t bother bathing. Maybe God would love me if I craved and pursued luxury, because luxury is the height of the pleasures God’s creation affords us.

Maybe none of that makes any difference in how much God loves us, and the proper goal is to choose whatever lets us love other people better. Not praising what pleases us, just loving them. And not because they will assure us of God’s love, but because the only real need is to remind each other we already have it.

Jeannette Batz Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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