the power of simple compliments


I'm typing this from the window seat as I fly back home to Nashville from Boston, where I just attended and spoke at the fabulous MEDA annual eating disorders conference.

I am gradually feeling more confident about this whole speaking thing, and left feeling reenergized about eating disorder recovery —excited to dig deeper into some of the topics that were presented and share about them here.

I had pretty limited time to tour Boston for the first time, since it was a short trip and much of my time was well-occupied with the conference (not to mention that the hotel was in a 'burb about a 20-minute Uber ride from the city). Still, I had a lovely few hours exploring the city this morning.

In the Back Bay, I stumbled upon The Fairy Shop — anyone who knows me well would say "that's definitely a Val thing." The guy inside told me I looked like a real fairy, which is probably one of the best appearance-related compliments I could get ;) and he agreed with my father-in-law's assessment that I should be cast in the next LOTR film. Ha!

I have to share the poster I bought there — hilarious.


Anyway, one of my favorite moments was—believe it or not—in the TSA security line at Boston Logan airport this afternoon. When I got close to the people who scan your ID and boarding pass, I heard one of them (an early 20's TSA agent) give a genuine, enthusiastic compliment to a customer about his glasses. Glasses guy grinned widely as he thanked him. Then, the lady behind him was complimented on her beautiful sweater. I was up next, and he said, "You hair is looking lovely today. [Scanning my ID] And Valerie — great name. You should thank your parents." (Hey, thanks Mom & Dad.)

As I continued on into the next phase of security, he just kept going with each traveler. The girl behind me noticed too, and laughed, saying, "Most entertaining security guy ever!" I was laughing, smiling, and truthfully, fighting back tears as I listened him continue to compliment each person who came up to his station. I couldn't always hear exactly what the compliment was, but I knew it happened every time — I'd look back and see another person thanking him and smiling.

A cynical younger me might have brushed it off, thinking, "Whatever, he's just trying to pass the time, and he doesn't mean any of that stuff, he's just trying to be nice because that's his job. He especially doesn't mean it because he's complimenting everyone, so I'm sure a lot of them are BS."

I certainly still have a cynical (well, perhaps just more "realist") side... and even though so much of what I hear in my professional work is about the atrocities of humans hurting each other, as I get older I seem to gain more faith in (and love for) humanity, rather than less. 

As I heard that young man offer compliments to each of these strangers that he encountered, this is what was going through my mind:

"I wish you could know the power of the loving words you're sharing. I wish I could tell you how much those words touched me at the core — far deeper than the seemingly surface-level compliments, to an acknowledgment of our shared humanity. A humble recognition of the love that we can have for each other, even as complete strangers. You have no idea of the gift that you're giving with these simple words."

The funny thing about this statement is that I wrote it before I came across the Hafiz quote (that I ended up using as the image for this post) a few minutes ago, while window shopping for UU stuff on Etsy, and don't think I'd ever seen it before.

Freaking synchronicity.

I came across a post by writer Alexandra Franzen a few months back called "It all matters." (I highly recommend reading it.) In short, a male hairstylist was engaging and kind with a female customer who came in one evening with plans he had no idea about. She had planned to kill herself that night, and wanted to look nice at her funeral. But because of his kindness, something shifted enough in her to drive herself to the hospital that night instead. As Alexandra so eloquently wrote about this,

Your words, your actions, your art projects, your efforts, every small, tender, beautiful thing that you put forth into the world matters so much. So much more than you may realize. Every single day, as you go about your work, you have no idea whose life you could be impacting for the better — often, in ways you can’t even imagine.

I know compliments can get a bad rap — we shouldn't need external validation, blahblahblah. But I believe that, especially between strangers, a simple compliment is like a hug, a wink at our common humanity and our desire to connect despite the many forces pulling us in opposing directions in today's world. 

Perhaps I'll try to send this to Boston Logan TSA to see if they can get it to that young man. I want him—and everyone like him who offers kindness, simple compassionate words and gestures to strangers— to know how noticed and appreciated their efforts are.

Compliment someone you love. Compliment someone you've never met. Love is what binds us, forever and ever.