The antidote to pessimism is admiration. It sounds so simple, but the counterpoint to dwelling on what is missing is to affirm what is already here. To live a life of admiration is to name what is uplifting in the world and, through our love and attention, to discern how what matters works, so we can bring it to bear on all that life offers. Through admiration, we address what is missing the way light addresses dark.
The word admire came into common usage in the late sixteenth century, from the Latin admirari, meaning “to wonder at” or “to look at with wonder.” Just what does it mean to look at with wonder? What does it mean to admire someone or something? How does admiration work? What does it do to us to be admired? What does it do to us to be admiring?
The word wonder traces back to the Old English word wundor,
which meant “marvelous thing, miracle, [or] object of astonishment.” When we admire someone or something, we lean into the power of life-force we find there so completely that we are astonished at the existent nature of whatever is before us. For to affirm what is steadfast and foundational, no matter where we find it, enlivens us.
Admiration is a powerful resource because when we admire someone or something, we are, if open, introduced to where those qualities live in us. Then, it is our work to stay in conversation with those qualities, to discern how to water them and nurture them. It is our work to let those qualities of admiration grow from within us out into the world.
The word respect means “to look again.” And so, by looking at what we admire, again and again, we invoke respect as a way to understand what it is we admire and how we might grow those qualities in similar ways.
When we don’t look at what is before us in wonder and don’t make the effort to see the seed of what we admire in ourselves, we lose respect for the life around us and within us. Then, we can trip into the traps of scarcity. Unable to see the possibility of what we admire in our own lives, we can become jealous of what we see. Unable to establish our own worth as a spirit in a body in time on Earth, we can become mired in envy, whereby we are so pained to see what we lack in others that we want to deprive them of their gifts. This dark spiral away from our own possibility is insidious.
What, then, does it mean “to look at with wonder?” It means that we receive the life before us as immanently sufficient unto itself. When we look with wonder, we are seeing the inherent Unity of Nature in whatever we look at, be it a butterfly or a wave or the tenderness of a child sleeping. In essence, life-force glows from within each part of the Universe and, if we are open-hearted, each part will mirror our own possibility of being immanently sufficient. While I can’t fly like a butterfly, I can turn toward the lightness of being that waits under all my trouble. While I can’t exist like a wave, I can turn toward my own resilience, which swells, crests, and thins repeatedly no matter what I am called to face. And while I can’t regain the innocence of that child sleeping, I can turn toward my remembrance of how rare it is to be alive in any given moment.
So, what does it mean, then, to admire someone or something? It means that we recognize the inherent gifts in what is before us. While I admire the depth of Rainer Maria Rilke, I don’t want to be him. I am, rather, encouraged to swim in my own depths. While I admire the honesty of Stanley Kunitz, I don’t want to be him. I am, rather, encouraged to uncover my own honesty. While I admire the kaleidoscopic compassion of Pablo Neruda, I don’t want to be him. I am, rather, encouraged to expand the color and vision of my own compassion.
And what does it do to us to be admired? The way that light causes everything it touches to open and grow, receiving the attention of admiration causes that piece of life to open and grow further for being seen and affirmed. When you affirm the unwavering ability of a dear friend to listen, you strengthen their gift of listening, empowering them to grow, the way a rose opens after a long day of sunshine.
And what does it do to us to be admiring? We, in turn, grow toward what we admire while strengthening our own versions of those qualities. When I admire horses for how they gallop with all four hooves off the ground, it strengthens my own ability to be wholehearted, even if briefly. When I admire how our dog loves without hesitation, it enlivens my own possibility of holding nothing back. And when I admire how water is both reflective and transparent without losing any of itself, it strengthens my deepest sense of self to be more fully engaged with the world.
So, I invite you to become a student of admiration. What do you look at with wonder? What do you admire specifically in the people, animals, and aspects of nature that thrive around you? What do these specific gifts mirror of your own possibility to live life fully? What steps can you take to become better acquainted with the seeds of these gifts that are dormant within you?
Make a practice of asking for stories of admiration and telling such stories. Tell the people you admire what it is about them that you look at with wonder, and also tell these stories to someone who doesn’t yet know these people. So that stories of admiration spread and grow. For to look at life with wonder is the remedy of Spirit arcing between all living things. This leads us to a life where one care uplifts another, joining us across the ages.
This excerpt is from Mark’s new book, Surviving Storms: Finding the Strength to Meet Adversity, published this September by St. Martin’s Essentials.
Questions to Walk With
In your journal, tell a story about someone you admire for what they do for others and a story about someone you admire for their integrity. Discuss why you admire these people.
In conversation with someone you admire, ask for the story of how they became who they are. What are their greatest gifts and how did they learn how to use them? What were or are their greatest obstacles? And what were or are their greatest teachers?