God made us all different. Why do we feel the need to compare and compete?
By Tom Bodett, Small Comforts, 1987, pages 118-121.
I’ve never found it a healthy practice to compare myself to other people. It only leads to either smug satisfaction or abject self-pity, neither of which becomes me. I sometimes feel that other people are my competition– whether it be for money, smarts, popularity, or spiritual awareness, and even though it does no good, I continue to wage silent battle with my fellow travelers. I’d be a lot better off figuring out what makes me happy, and doing what I can to stay that way.
Of course this is easier said than done, and no matter how noble my intentions, I continue to hold myself up against other people whether I want to or not.
There are two times I’ve done this that stick out in my mind more than others. These two in particular stay with me because I won the contest I should have lost and lost the one that never should have been a challenge.
The contest I won took place in a swank hotel bar in Boston a year ago. I was on my maiden, publicity tour, and the publisher of the book was treating me pretty good. There were a couple presidential visits commemorated in brass by the front door of this joint, and limos and Rolls-Royces were parked four deep on the street. I felt entirely out of my element, but decided to wallow in the good life just in case it never came around again.
While I was sitting in the bar one evening silently enjoying the fruits (or at least the hops) of success, a very drunk man broke me from my thoughts. I guessed him to be in his late thirties, and you didn’t have to know a lot about clothes to see that his evening attire probably cost more than my truck did.
He was alone and trying to spark some conversation around the bar by talking too loud to nobody in particular. He claimed to be the heir to a huge corporate fortune and to own a controlling interest in a worldwide cosmetics company. He bragged that he inherited his pile at the tender age of eighteen, and moaned that everyone’s been trying to take it from him ever since. He was closing up his Boston town house and building a “little ten-room” up at Kennebunkport, Maine, “to get away from it all.” He wondered if you could get decent servants up in that wilderness.
The word “servants” raised my hackles, and I started to listen more closely. He hated his cars. His Rolls was always in the shop waiting for parts from “those damn Brits.” He’d blown three transmissions in his Porsche in less than a year. The Mercedes “rode like a tank, and what’s the use of driving one anyway now that all the pimps have them?”
He had to fly the SST to London in the morning and complained all the way out the door on unsteady legs how his “brains go right through the back of his head” when he rides that thing with a hangover.
I sat in my off-the-rack clothes nursing my cheap domestic beer and gloated. Even though my entire net worth wouldn’t rotate the tires on his fleet of cars, I was the more fortunate man. He’d found more to complain about in a ten-minute tirade than I could come up with in a month.
I spent my last night in the good life with a different view of it. The next day I would fly coach back to Alaska, where I would be reunited with family, dear friends, and contentment, to name just three of the things that have obviously eluded that miserable soul at the bar. He had everything I should have envied, but all he got from me was pity. I won.
I would lose everything I won a year later in Seattle. Just a few weeks ago while on a similar tour, I had occasion to look out the window of another swank hotel. They were still treating me good, but I was getting a little tired of it. I had a cold and I missed my family. While pining away waiting for room service to bring me my version of a cold remedy, I spotted a man down on the street.
He was pushing a grocery cart of garbage bags full of God only knows what. He couldn’t have been that old, but he carried himself like a very old man. It was obvious that everything he owned was in the cart. He had on three or four beat-up coats to ward off the Seattle rains, and my heart went out to him. But just as I was about to slip into pity he did the most incredible thing.
He pulled a rag out of his coat pocket and began polishing the public drinking fountain on the corner. “Some kind of nut,” I thought. Then he pushed on and started cleaning up a parking meter. A few feet more and he was on a newspaper box. Every few wipes he would refold the rag to present a clean face and diligently go about his chore.
A store owner came out and started talking to him. I thought he was chasing him off, but it was soon apparent they were friends. The store owner gave him something. A few pedestrians walked by and greeted him as he went at his task. I was fascinated.
Here was a man who had lost everything, or maybe never had it. He had every reason to lie under a trestle somewhere and drink bad wine until it all went away, but he didn’t. He worked his way up the street making friends and doing some small thing for the privilege of being there.
I was beaten hands down. There I sat in a room that cost more money than he’ll see in a year, and I was depressed. Had he ventured a look into my window, he’d have seen a long face in a fancy chair. He might have felt sorry for me. Sorry that I was alone in a strange city without the benefit of all the good people he knew. He won.
I guess you could call this contest even, but I’m not so sure. All the standard lessons are there. Every luxury in the world can’t buy happiness, and all the hard times won’t necessarily break it. There’s no good reason to be intimidated by anyone as we go through these little comparisons with each other. You win some, you lose some. It’s best not to play the game at all.
1 Corinthians 4:3-5 — I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
If Thou, O Lord, would mark iniquities, who among us could stand unafraid before Thee? For there is so much bad in the best of us, and so much good in the worst of us, that we dare not criticize each other. May we all find the grace to seek Thy pardon and find the Gospel joy of making a new beginning. In the power of Christ our Lord and Master. Amen.
–Peter Marshall (1902-1949)
Incline us, O God, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge all they say and do with the charity which we would desire from them for ourselves.
–Jane Austen (1775-1817)