High Fives

High fives from cute teenage girls!  How could you not like that?

Well, I’ll tell you, this old guy was certainly not immune to the little ego boost that came along with the invitation to slap the upraised hands of the smiling university coeds as I ran by.  The next lap or two around the track seemed just a little shorter, the effort to put one foot in front of the other a little less demanding.

It’s amazing what a little encouragement can do.

I detest exercising in the cold.  Really, you could remove the last phrase from that sentence and still have a truthful statement.  I don’t like to exercise much.  Period.  I do it anyway.  I guess you could say I like the result more than I detest the method of reaching said result.  I’m a little happier with the shape of that guy I see in the mirror these days.

That said, I can hardly force myself to leave the comfort of our home and go into the great outdoors when the temperature dips much below fifty degrees.  So it was, one evening recently, I found myself headed for the indoor track at the local university’s health center since I didn’t want to brave the nearly freezing temperatures that had arrived suddenly.  I laughed at the irony of driving my car to the gym so I could run, but I did it anyway.  Did I tell you?  I hate to be cold.

The running/walking track in the health center is on a mezzanine that circles the outer gym wall about ten feet above floor level.  When I arrived, I noticed a number of students crowding the track near the railing, looking down on a girl’s intramural soccer game taking place on the gym floor.  The entire inside lane was blocked by the spectators, but there was another lane in which to run, so I began my three mile ordeal anyway.  I had to dodge an unobservant kid or two during the session, but they stayed out of the way for the most part.

As I rounded the one-tenth mile long track for about the twentieth time, I came to another conclusion.

I detest exercising on the indoor track–nearly as much as I detest exercising in the cold.

I am not made to be an athlete.  I constantly have to concentrate on what my feet are doing, or they get tangled in each other.  If I’m not careful, I pound my heels on the running surface and the result is an aching back and shin splints that hurt for weeks.  My arms fly all akimbo wherever they want, making me look, for all the world, like a stick figure lurching down the track.  As I tire, I find my upper body leaning forward, as if the end of this torture might come sooner if I lean into it.

The poor design of the track I was running on only made my discomfort more intense, and the crowd of kids along the railing simply added to the misery.  Still, I was determined to complete the distance I had predetermined to achieve.  So I tried to ignore the spectators, even though their presence made me take a few extra steps every lap by having to keep to the outside lane.  I may even have frowned at them a time or two as I approached them.  I really wasn’t thinking about how they felt.

Selfish kids!  Didn’t they realize the track was for patrons to exercise on?

It turns out that at least a couple of them were thinking about how I felt.

I was startled at about the twenty-fifth lap to see a couple of the girls watching me as I rounded the corner at the far end of the track. I was even more surprised when they both raised their hands in the traditional invitation for a congratulatory high five hand slap as I approached their position.  My shock didn’t keep me from slapping both hands as I passed.

In my imagination, I heard a conversation between the two girls as I had run within their view on the other side of the gym numerous times.

“Would you look at that old guy go?  He’s really good at this!”

“Yeah, I’m amazed at how far he’s run.  And, he’s still got such great form!  I’m gonna give him a high five the next time he comes around!”

What really transpired was probably something quite different.

“Would you look at that old guy?  He doesn’t look like he’ll get around the track another time.  I hope he’s all right.”

“Yeah, I’m amazed that he’s lasted that far.  We should give him some encouragement.  Let’s give him a high five if he makes it back around.”

Regardless of their motivation, or their impression of my skills, the high five did the trick.  I was encouraged and felt better about running inside.  The remaining half-mile went by easily.  I didn’t trip myself and I’m pretty sure that I managed to run upright, instead of leaning forward like an old man running downhill.

It’s amazing what a little encouragement can do.  Especially when it comes from an unexpected source.

Last Saturday, I got to play with a few other people in a local music program.  The headline act was a professional saxophonist (who grew up here) and his band, who are all professionals as well.  My brass quintet did a couple of numbers on the program.  I played okay.  It was not a stellar performance, but it was a competent one.  I expected the hometown folks to tell me how much they enjoyed it.  It’s what people do.  I would do the same thing.

Imagine my astonishment when, at intermission, the keyboard player for the headliner walked over to where I was standing with a young lady who had sung in one of the earlier acts.  Shaking my hand, he specifically mentioned how much he loved hearing me play the French horn and made a point of complimenting my performance.  Then, turning to the young lady, he commented on the piece her group had sung, making sure to mention how beautiful it was.

If ever I have been genuinely encouraged, this did the trick!

First, that the man even knew what instrument I played was astounding to me.  Half of the hometown folks couldn’t have told you that.  They just know I play in the group and they like the overall sound.  He picked out the instrument and knew who played it, as well as being aware of the performance itself.  This from a man who should have been standing and letting us compliment him on his stellar abilities at the keyboard, while playing in that outstanding ensemble.  We never got the chance to return his encouragement before he was off to the next group he wanted to greet.

Do you understand what he did?  I wonder if even he understands it.  My guess is he does not.

Praise from someone you don’t expect it from elevates the spirit, freeing the one complimented to do even better.

I’ve heard all of my life about people who have the gift of encouragement.  I hear from them frequently myself.  They are the people who look for opportunities to praise, to prod to do better, to lift the spirits of all around them.  As a writer and musician, I appreciate them incredibly.  That said, I sometimes come to expect their input.  I don’t want to take away from what they do, because it is so important.

But, these unexpected bright spots, the glare of the spotlight which the unexpected compliment shines on achievement–Ah, that makes the spirit soar and give fuel to go the distance!

Are you an encourager?  Keep doing what you’re doing!  The world needs you and your kind words, as well as your exhortation to do better.

What if you’re one who is uncomfortable with encouraging others?  I wonder if you have any idea what one sentence from you will accomplish, offered at the right time?  You may be one of the young coeds offering the high fives.  You may even be the professional turning aside praise to offer it instead to others.

Like the uncomfortable zone I move into every time I exercise, or leave the warmth of my home to go into the cold world, you may find it frightening the first time you do it.  It may even be frightening the first one hundred times.  Do it anyway.  You never know who you will inspire to do better, to reach further, to stretch themselves out of their own comfort zone.

All it takes is a high five.  Or a kind word.

You can afford to give those away.

You’ll probably get them back anyway.

“The praise of the praiseworthy is beyond all rewards.”
(from “The Two Towers” ~ J.R.R.Tolkien ~ 1892-1973)

“So, encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:11 ~ NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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