Pope St. Gregory the Great was renowned for being so humble that he would not allow anyone to compliment him. On one occasion, he chided a correspondent for his fulsome praise: “When in writing to me you match the name to the thing and put forth resounding statements and rhetorical touches in my regard, surely, dearest brother, you are calling the monkey a lion, which we are seen to do when we call mangy kittens leopards or tigers.”
Many people today have a policy of calling mangy kittens leopards or tigers: it’s known as being “nice.” Sometimes, with the aim of not deflating someone’s aspirations or dreams of greatness, we refuse to acknowledge the reality of a particular situation. Admittedly, it is tricky to deal with someone who is trying to master some sought-after skill or to pursue some cherished goal, but seems to have little chance of success. Aristotle says we become flute players by playing the flute—and we all start out as bad flute players. Yet some, no matter how hard they try, never become good flute players. Rather than growing in the art of flute playing, they instead reinforce their bad habits the more they play. In the midst of all this fluting, what is the outside observer or commentator to say? In the end, is it nicer to call the mangy kitten a leopard, or to help the person to flourish in some other activity, which may be better suited to his or her talents?
It is true that well-timed praise or encouragement can make a decisive difference for people who do have potential for success in a particular endeavor, yet are diffident or lack the confidence necessary to persevere of their own accord. Such encouragement is an important duty of the wise, who are able to discern the difference between immaturity and impossibility. To use Gregory’s metaphor, we might think of the difference between a mangy kitten and a tiger cub: both are small, and yet one of them will grow into a tiger. The wise man will help the kitten to flourish as a cat, and the cub as a tiger. Each has its own inherent dignity, and to confuse the natures of the two is to disparage both.
In Whit Stillman’s recent film Damsels in Distress, there is a wonderful scene in which a frat boy called Thor discovers that he has never learned the names of the colors. We learn later in the film that, as a child, Thor’s parents decided that he ought to be a child prodigy and, consequently, made him skip kindergarten. This enabled them to brag to their friends about their son’s precocity. As Thor discovers, however, important things are covered in kindergarten, such as the names of the colors, which he spends much of the movie diligently studying—both primary and secondary.
Stillman thus playfully captures the harm that can come from unrealistic expectations of future greatness, particularly as Thor’s natural abilities seem more on the level of the kitten than the tiger. By the end of the film, Thor has mastered each of the colors of the rainbow, and takes evident joy in reciting their names; he has learned to flourish in this basic human activity, rather than in the pretensions of his parents. At the very least, he will be able to mix drinks with greater accuracy.
Every one of us is made in the image of God and equally shares the dignity of being human, and yet each of us has a distinct role to play in God’s providence, a role that flows from our God-given gifts and talents and not merely from our own industriousness. Thus, even St. Gregory the Great, a lion among popes if there ever was one, could compare himself to a monkey, for monkeys too play a sacred role in manifesting the glory of God.