I just want to encourage you

May 1st, 2018

My first Zen teacher was Japanese, and although he spoke English, he was nearly impossible to follow. In his soft voice and heavy accent, a good part of what he said was indecipherable. Because of that, he had a reputation for giving terrible Dharma talks, or teachings, and this caused him regret.

“I just want to encourage you,” he would say as he set off on a discourse that no one could make heads or tails of. But that was enough, at least for me. I’ve realized that encouragement is the essence of teaching. I think it’s just about all we can do for one another, and all we need to do. With encouragement, you see, people can do anything and will. A little encouragement goes a long way. You might even say it lasts forever.

Nowadays I’m grateful for the encouragement I’ve been given, which seems to be the most useful thing I can pass along.

A few years ago there was some new research into how toddlers learn to walk. The study said that a baby learning to walk falls on average 17 times per hour. 17 times! Can you imagine that? Seventeen times the shock, hurt, and tears. More than 200 failures in one 12-hour stretch! And 200 times to start over at square one. Even with all that, there has not yet been a baby who gave up on the whole enterprise. It’s a remarkably efficient learning process. Forward motion dissolves fear.

This information has factored into a lot of the advice I’ve given to people since then. Most of us, most of the time, encumber ourselves with the terrible weight and responsibility for teaching our kids everything so they turn out to be something. By that I mean something successful or prized, happy or well. Starting out, we look at them as shapeless clay, putty, or goop. I like to remind parents that we don’t actually teach our children how to walk, how to eat, how to talk, or how to sleep, regardless of how many expert opinions we seek on those subjects. An acorn becomes an oak, I say, lacking any other explanation for how human development happens. And on this basis, our children are completely and wholly themselves at every age and stage, lacking nothing, only absorbing time and encouragement to keep going.

Back when my daughter was in preschool, her teacher made a handout for parents called 4 Steps of Encouragement. When your kids are about 4 years old, you might start to worry about the really important stuff they aren’t doing, like riding a tricycle, holding a pencil, writing their name, or drawing a person with arms and legs. You’re pretty sure they’re already behind, and then where will they end up?  The teacher assures you it’s not late, there’s no hurry, children learn and grow at their own pace, and for heaven’s sake please confine your contribution to repeating these four things:

1. “I understand, I know it’s hard.”
2. “I think you can handle it.”
3. “Want to give it a try?”
4. “When you’re ready . . . “

Last week my daughter texted me during a school day, one of the last of her senior year, and said “I’m getting sad to leave.” I was surprised to hear her express affection for high school, but that wasn’t it. She meant sad to leave home, which really means sad to grow up. Isn’t that true? Isn’t reluctance at the root of all sadness? The reluctance to change, let go, fall down, get up and move on?

Of course we can give help where it is needed, attention when it is lacking, and patience when time is short. But there’s one more thing that bears repeating.

I just want to encourage you.


  1. I so need your encouragement right now.
    Love to you Maezen.

    Comment by marcea pugliese — May 1, 2018 @ 7:26 am

  2. Maezen,
    So well written.
    So well said.
    So on the mark.
    Thank you for the guidance and encouragement.

    Comment by Stvn — May 1, 2018 @ 9:51 am

  3. This arrived at the perfect moment. I have a very discouraged 15 year old on my hands and I have taken on all of it. Your words allowed me to breathe a sign of relief. Encouragement. There really is a lightness to it. Thank you for all you do. Your encouragement is so appreciated

    Comment by Christina — May 1, 2018 @ 11:21 am

  4. And you do. You do, in every post.

    Comment by Sharon — May 1, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

  5. I have read this many times today. It means so many things, it means everything.

    Comment by Laura — May 1, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

  6. So tenderly, beautifully, raw and perfect.
    You’ve taught me more than you’ll know and more than I knew.
    love to you.

    Comment by Mary — May 1, 2018 @ 5:38 pm

  7. So beautiful, Karen. And I took the time to watch the video that you’ve posted and was moved beyond words — the words that I, too, live and love by. Thank you so much.

    Comment by Elizabeth Aquino — May 1, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

  8. You inspired me, as you often do—but this one spawned a bit of writing that has already been published. Thank you! https://theascent.pub/you-must-have-both-to-grow-5823690bb685

    Comment by Donn King — May 1, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

  9. the essence of Mother and Dad’s fears: “And then where will they end up?” By encouraging, standing with, being there and appreciating actively and observantly, the parents are doing their part. Life and people are much, much more than we can easily grasp.

    Comment by Bill — May 2, 2018 @ 6:17 am

  10. I just love you Maezen. Thank you for encouraging me…so that I can forget myself once again, and remember to encourage others.

    Comment by Kirsten Sopik — May 2, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

  11. Beautiful Maezen.
    Yesterday I was speaking to a friend who is painting his boat. I’m getting married next week. He asked me about what gift I wanted, I told him that lately I prefer non-material gifts and suggested that maybe we could go out one day with his boat and that that would be a wonderful gift.
    The pain your daughter describes is about time, if we did not have time we would never feel this sad melancholy sweetness because life would not change. Regrets stem from not loving and caring more than we could have done.
    Spending time on a boat with a friend you love, what more can you ask for?

    Comment by Simone — May 4, 2018 @ 1:41 am

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