Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Trouble with Compliments

I felt completely out of place.  My shirt was drenched with sweat as I stood on the platform wearing the black gown of academic regalia, together with a bright blue and white collar.  The flowing garment reminded me of the colourful robe I had worn as a 12-year-old during my short stint singing alto in the Vernon First Baptist Church choir.  However, here the stage was filled with dozens of different gown designs and colors, which clearly meant something to the assembled professors who wore them, but to me presented no discernible pattern.  I imagined we all looked like a mismatched pack of penguins perspiring under the harsh performance lighting.  It was all quite uncomfortable.

A mistake must have been made.  I was an imposter.  No doubt that error would shortly be discovered and I would be plucked from the platform like a false feather hiding amidst the plumage of a peacock.  And yet all I saw was warm smiles that normally would have made me feel at ease.  It all seemed too strange to be real. 
I’ve always known that pride puts one on a pillar from which one is ever prone to plummet to disgrace.  Accolades and honours can so easily feed the insatiable appetite of egotism.  Acclaim and adulation create addictions and false realities.  What is more frightening is the fact that all of us, at some time or other, seek attention and applause to assuage our insecurity.  Despite our self-proclaimed humility the allure of the limelight casts its spell.  Five minutes of fame?  “Not me”, I delude myself. 
That’s the trouble with recognition.  It betrays our weakness, our need for appreciation…and maybe more.  In our eagerness to be accepted, acknowledged and approved of we become skillful at unobtrusively introducing our accomplishments in public.  Why?  Why must we be patted on the back?  Why must we, like children in the playground swinging high or running fast, proclaim, “Look at me.  Look at me”?  Why is it so difficult to deal humbly with victory and success, and shamelessly with defeat and failure?

As the challenges of Parkinson’s disease continue to mount, and others look on sympathetically, the battle between humility and hubris builds.  We seem to tightly clutch our titles and our trophies, anticipating anonymity.  Past pinnacles of success seem to crumble, replaced by crevices of self-doubt.  It is as if our shuffling, stiffening and shaking betray the clever schemes we use to hide our obvious inadequacy. 
Four weeks ago on that auditorium platform amidst professorial splendor, wearing my newly acquired academic regalia, an honorary doctorate of laws was conferred on me.  I was conflicted and confused.  Like most, I have a problem responding well to a compliment, let alone an honor such as this.  Sincerity and humility hung in the balance.  Self-evaluation of either proved impossible.  So I imagined the face of my departed Father smiling from the audience, even as my mother in the front row smiled in fact and shed a tear.  His approval was enough.  And when congratulations came I shook each hand as if it were my Dad’s, and heard his silent warning, “Now be careful lest you fall, son.”


  1. I like what you have writen ... so well.
    I have saved a copy and also passed on the url

  2. I read Still Alice last week, and it is about a woman professor at Harvard who is diagnosed with alzheimer's. She is a language or linguistic professor, and she is the one that saw herself changing and went alone to get diagnosed and kept it from her husband as long as possible. This story is told from her point of view to give us a glimmer of what a patient goes through. That is why I like your blog, it does the same thing and is read, not fictitious. Anyway one of the chapters is similar to this. She is going to a graduation at Harvard. Both she and her husband wear the regalia, except by this time she has no idea why they are dressed for Halloween. At the end one of the graduate students comes to her and thanks her for all she's meant to him and how she was the one that inspired him to get another degree. She is thinking "who is this person?" but she enjoys the compliments. At the end of his little thank-you speech he says something to the effect, I know you won't remember this, so I've typed it out for you to keep and read as often as you want to know how remarkable a person you are. I thought that was so great. Your post reminded me of that scene. Keep helping us, even those not going through PD but other diagnoses where we see life changes.