“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” --Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”
Those lines hold one of the many reasons that poem occupies a large chunk of landscape on my hallway wall. For someone who was never athletic – yes, I was the kid no one wanted on their kickball team – I am intensely competitive. At physical therapy, I push against my own numbers; improvement is the only acceptable outcome. When I missed the valedictorian spot in high school by three hundredths of a grade point, I railed at my mom for months for not letting me compete in Academic Decathlon which would have added an extra grade point to my average. My narrow-minded parents had strangely thought that eight periods a day were enough for a high school senior. I don’t like to fail, and there is a hard-edged, prickly, shadowy place within me that defines failure as anything other than being the best.
This is, of course, where reality crashes into ego. “Best” is indefinable, and regardless of definition, my abilities at pretty much anything fall more into the range of “okay.” Reality can really mess with one’s head. For most of my life, the nagging of my ego turned things inside out – if I’m not the best, then I’m probably not any good at all. I even managed to wrap a shroud of inadequacy around my ambitions. It’s conceited, after all, to worry about being better than other people, and conceited isn’t nice, and I wanted to be the nicest person possible, and…
And round-and-round it goes. I’m betting that I’m not the only person stuck on the merry-go-round of ambition and insecurity, and that is, one of the best things about the uncertainty of adulthood. There are so many things that none of our schooling, lessons, training, or reading prepare us for, that the playing field is essentially level.
At work, we joke that “it’s better to be lucky than good any day of the week.” In a field where biology and fate trump knowledge and skill daily, one learns quickly to abandon ego, and simply to gratefully accept whatever tools come one’s way – if a brilliant insight comes from within, great; if someone else saves your patient, be happy that it was saved.
Parenting teaches me humility daily. What makes a “good” parent? Which philosophies, techniques, theories are best? Not a clue. What works with one kid one day may backfire with epic pyrotechnics with a sibling the next.
If I’m paying more attention to the world than to my own fears and pride, I realize that I only have to turn to the news to see how futile comparisons are. “Expert” scientists – the best and brightest in each field—are contradicted by the work of their colleagues on a regular basis. One critic’s great American novelist is another reader’s over-rated hack. The financial crisis – well, regardless of politics and persuasion, we can pretty much all agree that those who were considered the luminaries of the world of money fell off a rather large cliff.
So, where was I going with all this? Oh yeah, balance, and comparing myself to the person I want to be rather than to some external benchmark. On a smaller, less grandiose level, today is November 15, the halfway point of NaNoWriMo. If I compare myself with others, I may become vain or bitter. In the forums, there are writers who have already crossed the 50K word line, and there are others far behind my 27(something)K. I haven’t read their work, and I have no way of comparing their words with my own. So, I must be content with the fact that I’m right on track with the goal I set for myself at the beginning of the month. Sometimes it is no bad thing to be happy with what is.
Here’s an excerpt. But, you may only read it if you promise not to compare it with others!
Instead, Mr. Loupe’s face was serious, and old – that was the weirdest thing in this whole freaky afternoon. Mr. Loupe was the youngest teacher at the school, just out of college. Most of the time, he didn’t even look like a grownup. But, when Sylvia mentioned the glowing cupboard, it was as though all of the light had been sucked from him as well. Lines crossed his forehead and cheeks where none had been before, his eyes seemed to recede into his skull, and in the faded and flickering afternoon light, he appeared shrunken and stooped. “I was afraid of that. The Balance truly has gone, then. And so,” He turned, as though speaking to an invisible presence in the room. “And so, it is time then. I was wrong.”
He gathered the children toward him and leaned forward. “I had hoped that we had more time, that this would be unnecessary, that I could give you a better explanation. But,” The wind banged louder against the window, and the whole room trembled. “But, there is no time. This is it. Just remember,” and he raised his voice into the howling gale as the room darkened and threatened to fly apart around them, “everything you need, you have within you. Sylvia, you have learned all that you need to know, but you will forget. Listen to your brother and sister. They remember what you have lost. Richard, use your words. Remember St. George. Remember that you have been a knight of Michael. Dylan, everything you believe is true. Keep the stories within you. And Dylan,” he seemed to fade before them, swallowed in a vortex of wind and darkness, “the cold is the key.”
The wind roared as the room pulsed, ready to fly apart. “The floor is tilting,” Richard yelled.
“Don’t be stupid, the floor is always like this.” Dylan tried to look scornful, but the dark pulled at her. She grabbed for Sylvia’s hand.
“Richard’s right. We’re sliding! Hold on to something!” Sylvia grabbed her brother and sister, searching the twisting room for a firm hold. “Richard, grab that rod.”
The room bucked and tipped, pouring them toward the cupboard, now glowing again. The cupboard mouth seemed to yawn wider, waiting to swallow them. Richard thrust out a desperate arm, and his hand closed around a smooth, round, piece of wood. It burned his hand and he almost let go, but clenched his fingers tighter, trying to stop their plummet. The floor heaved again, and they fell, tumbling like grains of sand into the burning gold light.