I've been asked a few times this Lent what I'm "giving up." I think people expected me to say chocolate or sauvignon blanc. But I've surprised a few with my answer. This Lent I'm giving up -- or at least trying to -- living in the world of comparisons and competition. Not an easy task as the Olympic competitions are in full swing. We love to compete. And we love to compare. But in the end, I think most comparison and competition is not helpful, and can, in fact, be destructive. Comparisons are indeed odious.
Most comparisons are about pulling someone else down because our fragile self-images can't withstand the competition. Let me give you an example. One summer when I was studying in Omaha, a friend came to visit for the weekend. He had another friend who was a native to Omaha who offered to show us around the area. I was convinced that I had pretty much seen all there was to see in the Podunk, being a savvy New Yorker and all that, but I was game.
First stop was a high school, which I thought was a little odd. Turns out that the friend, Dennis, was a swimming champ there when he was in high school. He proceeded to show us the trophies he had won, still on display in the lobby. Nice, but odd, I thought. Next we went to an art gallery downtown. I was looking forward to this cultural foray until I realized the reason we were visiting the gallery was because Dennis was exhibiting some of his paintings at an amateur showing there. He proceeded to give us a full lecture about his work and the artistic process he had employed. I was beginning not to like this guy.
Next he took us to another high school. I must admit that my first thought was a sarcastic one: What, did he play baseball at a different high school? But, no, it turned out that Dennis was now principal in this particular high school. There were no trophies in the lobby cabinets, but there were some plaques. They read "Best Principal in Omaha." Three years running. And guess whose name was on them? Yep. Dennis. I was really not liking this guy.
Final stop was a house in the suburbs (though I didn't see much of a difference from the city). An elderly couple greeted us at the door and proceeded to show us the addition they had just constructed onto the house: nice sitting room, attached bedroom and small outdoor garden. It was built for none other than, yes, Dennis, so that he could have a place of respite from the rigors of Omaha city life. Geez.
By the time I was dropped back at Creighton University, I was furious. Shaking inside. What a wasted day. I get stuck listening to this guy talk about how great he is and how much he's accomplished. I made a beeline for the chapel. And as I sat there with my stomach churning, a voice from deep inside of me finally whispered, "You're jealous." I turned a deaf ear at first, but as its volume grew, my anger lessened. I was indeed jealous and threatened by Dennis. All of his accomplishments seemed to dwarf my meager contributions, and somehow I felt less about myself in his presence. I tried to let it go. Prayed it through, and was fairly successful. Truth be told, I still didn't really care for the guy, but I was able to acknowledge his giftedness. And also to recognize that his accomplishments in no way diminished mine. We were different people with different talents. Plenty of room to celebrate both.
We have a strange tendency to sit and stare at "the good" if we are not included in it. Rather than celebrate it, we wonder why we were left out. Being in the presence of talent and accomplishment prompts us to consider ours. And if we find we don't quite measure up, we might be tempted to pull down the more talented one, believing we rise in the estimation of others if we can lessen the impact of the "shining star." But, alas, such a ploy only diminishes whatever light we may potentially shine forth. Putting a bushel basket over someone else's light simply means there is less light to see by.
The primary issue may be that we tend find our self worth in things that are illusory and fleeting. If it is our wealth that gives us stature, then we have a vested interest in others' poverty. If their bankbook tally approaches ours, we lose our specialness.
If it is our good looks that fuels our self-image, we want to hang around ugly people lest another's physical prowess casts a shadow over ours. But this perspective is an inherently self-destructive one. It leads to anxious and futile striving. There really is room for all of us to shine. The more light the better. We just have to believe it.
Which brings me back to Lent. I've been trying to be conscious of fasting from residing in the land of comparison and competition. I want to trade in that passport. When I catch myself straining my neck, I've been trying to look straight ahead instead. I'm practicing celebrating my own giftedness and talents in a way that roots me more securely in my status as LOVED CHILD OF GOD. There is no scarcity in the world of love. The more we give away, the more we get. And someone else being loved does nothing to diminish my own capacity for "loveableness."
I did recently hear about another preacher in a neighboring parish who was packing them in for the retreat he was giving. I almost asked, "How many is he getting?" so I could compare stats with the retreat I am presently giving. But, instead, I simply said, "Good for him." And good for me too.