“Return insults with compliments,” I read aloud, peeking over my copy of The Rule of St. Benedict as I drank my morning coffee, “Hey guys, let’s give this one a try.”
My two adolescent sons smirked as they have each time I quote this “Rule,” written in the year 540 and commonly held as the standard for monastic life. I picked up a copy at the recommendation of a friend: “You’re home all day with seven boys; that’s kind of like running a monastery, isn’t it?”
This friend was right in some ways. The book is a guideline for prayer, mealtimes and chores that are practical for any group of people living together. But I must caution the reader who decides to pick up a copy — advice regarding penances such as “severe fasting” is obviously not applicable to raising children. However, gems like the one that’s been my focus is certainly helping us keep the peace … and have a few laughs along the way.
So how do we “Return insults with compliments,” as found in Chapter 4 of The Rule of St. Benedict?
I can’t answer for the monk who wrote this tenet to practically expound on Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you.”
However, my 11-year-old smart aleck had his own spin on the idea. After I made the suggestion, he turned to his brother who accused him of “hogging the whole couch” and with a saccharine smile replied: “Hey man — I really like your headphones.”
Yes, my son was teasing me and he earned a well-deserved laugh, but still … we ended up having a great conversation. My husband chimed in as well: “Complimenting someone who’s insulting you will disarm him,” he said.
I got to try this very disarming tactic on my husband just a few hours later.
Let me illustrate: Dinner guests were arriving in 15 minutes, and so my fearless hunter-gatherer decided to do the most logical thing to prepare for their visit — retile the upstairs bathroom shower. Psst — the guests never even went upstairs and they certainly didn’t shower. Regardless, this was important to my dear husband in the presentation of his home and so he ran around with a face as red as a constipated baby’s, eyeing me in an accusatory way and grumbling, “Someone’s moved my tools … someone’s moved my tools.”
Rather than defend myself as I usually would, I smiled at him, took a deep breath and paid him the compliment I composed earlier that afternoon — since we’re olympians at the pre-company fight. “You have a hot body,” I said, “and a beautiful soul.”
He was disarmed — literally — he actually dropped his spackle brush. We had a good laugh and a great time with our guests. Since then, St. Benedict’s advice has been thrown around by my kids, mostly in a joking manner. “You have a nicely shaped chin!” was hollered amid a video game tussle this morning.
And while my family certainly is snarky, I hope this tip from a 6th-century monk will eventually sink in and bear fruit. Personally, it felt great to focus on my husband’s many amazing qualities that night of the dinner guests, rather than obsess over his occasional maddening quirks (which almost always involve spackle and bathroom tile).
Now I’m not suggesting anyone glaze over a serious or abusive situation by simply slapping a compliment at an aggressor. Not at all. “Do not make peace if it is not genuine” is another one of St. Benedict’s gems. It speaks of creating a home life that’s honestly harmonious. And by compiling a mental list of genuine compliments for your loved ones before normal household squabbles, you’ll achieve this harmony more quickly for many reasons. One being — you won’t allow yourself to ignore a loved one’s many numerous virtues because of one single real or perceived failure. Again, as my pre-company fight illustrates, the compliment paid in our moment of tension shifted the focus off my husband’s quirky habits and onto his finer virtues. For both of us.