In John Greenleaf Whittier's narrative poem "Maud Muller," Whittier writes, "For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been!' "
In the poem a peasant farm girl putting up hay and a judge have a chance encounter when the judge is passing through the countryside and asks the young woman for a drink.
They pass a few pleasant minutes in small talk before the judge moves on. Unbeknown to the other, they each take a liking to the other and in modern parlance think about "hitting" on the other. But, neither will express the inner desire and so they continue their lives down separate and sadder paths. And though it is sad that they never experienced what might have been, I think I have discovered sadder words.
In the novel "Shipping News," by E. Annie Proulx, Quoyle, the main character comes out of the bosses office, sits at his desk and thinks, "Thirty-six years old and this was the first time anybody ever said he'd done it right." This is the second time I've borrowed this novel from a friend. These are the only underlined words in the whole book. I suspect I underlined them my first reading as they bring near tears to my eyes even now when I see them.
In the many years I spent in pastoral work, I encountered nothing sadder than the adult child still trying to hear words of approval from a parent, words that were never going to come. The sadness was compounded if the parent had already died.
I think of Jackie, an outstanding artist struggling to complete her Ph. D. in hopes this event would trigger those magic words from her father: "Job well done." It didn't happen.
And there was Butch, the young millionaire, driven by a need to hear those words. Unfortunately, his Prima Donna father was too busy competing with him to utter any words of approval. This fellow graduated salutatorian in a high school class of 1200 or so, attended WestPoint and obtained a graduate degree from Stanford.
I encounter the most exaggerated example when I attend a service in a mega-church where the Rev. Jack Hyles was preaching. Hyles was noted for having perfected a system of building large Sunday schools around busing ministries. He related how his alcoholic father abused and belittled him throughout his growing up years, especially over his having "surrendered to preach."
He said on the night he was given an award for having built the largest Sunday school ever, he went into his office, got down on his knees and prayed, "I did it for you dad." I know the preacher thought he was revealing some deep spiritual truth about tenacity and goal achievement, but all he revealed was that he was a man driven by a need that would never be fulfilled, a need for his father's approval.
Of these three examples, two of them were close personal friends. All three of them were talented people capable of doing a fine job at whatever they chose. If they couldn't get their parents' approval at their level of ability, what chance does the average schmuck like Quoyle have?
Quoyle was a sort of born loser raised in the shadow of an often praised older brother. It is true that he tends to make poor choices in things like careers and marriage. But he also makes right choices. He is responsible in raising the two daughters from his failed marriage. Actually he is a rather decent father. Nobody is such a loser that in 36 years they should not have heard "you're right. Good job, Quoyle," a few times.
What makes the words, "in 36 years this is the first time I've been told I was right," so sad is that they are so unnecessary. We aren't all capable of doing great things, but surely we all do something occasionally that is worthy of note and of an affirming comment by our parents. Pay attention to your kids and praise them when they do something praiseworthy. This kind of behavioral therapy costs nothing and has lasting results. And though a teacher or other meaningful adult can praise your child, it is your praise the child really wants and needs.
When you affirm your child's worth by letting them know they did something right or made a right decision it builds their self confidence, though in the total scheme of things, they will probably not even remember your having done it. But, if you fail to do it, they will crave it for a life time and your neglect will drive them to some form of abnormality.
This does not mean we should not correct them when they do wrong or try to help them improve the things they do when it is important. But a timely word of approval can save them from a life of endless thirst for something that will never come. Make sure your child is not some day sitting at a desk saying, "In 36 years, this is the first time anyone told me I was right."