The urges to achieve, and to brag, are apparently as natural as the urge to breathe. On Saturday morning, my husband and a few of the baseball players took our boys fishing. It was Henry’s first time. He was so excited on Friday night that he could hardly get to sleep. He was sure he was going to catch something, and more than once he reminded both Joe and me not to forget to pack the camera so that he could take a picture of his fish and bring it to school to show his friends. (Originally he wanted to take the fish, but I suggested that it would probably be best just to bring the photo.)
Eventually Henry settled down and shut his big brown eyes for the night. At about 6:30 the next morning he and Christian woke up, ate some cereal, put on some grubby clothes, and helped their dad pack up the car with rods, lures, the tackle box and, of course, the camera. When it was time to go, I kissed the boys’ cheeks, wished them luck, and sprayed a few last squirts of bug spray onto their necks and ankles.
As I watched them drive away, I said a silent prayer that Henry would catch a fish. Then I thought about how funny it was that at only three, Henry was just as concerned about using his red and blue Spiderman fishing rod to catch a fish as he was about documenting his trophy and showing it to his buddies. (I’m just hoping the urge to embellish is not innate as well. It probably is.)
After they left, and knowing I had a good few hours to myself, I went for a long run. My route took me through two of the town’s parks, and I watched as people of varying abilities were out walking, running, biking or otherwise enjoying the warm spring morning. I passed several walkers as I ran, and began to think about how these impulses to accomplish and to boast only get more complicated–and more destructive–when we become adults and start comparing ourselves to others.
Once we grow up, it’s no longer good enough just to catch a fish. We have to catch a fish that is bigger than our friend’s.
Since December when I started getting more serious about running, I have progressed a lot. I am now running seven or eight miles at a time. Yet there are many people I know who can run a lot farther than I. If I wanted to, I could allow this knowledge to dampen the satisfaction I ought to feel about how much I’ve improved in four months. On the other hand, I could shallowly puff myself up and think about all the people who would not or could not run eight miles on a Saturday morning.
When I compare myself to others, I am left with two unappealing choices. I can either experience a cheap, ill-gotten feeling of success, or I can plunge myself unnecessarily into despair and self-pity.
What’s worse is that I will never learn anything about myself by sizing up those around me. The very idea that I could judge my success by looking at someone else’s success is a bit absurd. What can any other person’s achievement teach me about my own?
Finally, if I am constantly looking to others, it will seem as if I’m never getting ANYWHERE, as if I’m making no progress at all. No matter how far I run, there will always be people who can run farther. And no matter how little I run, there will always be people who run less. So, what do I learn from this? Absolutely nothing.
Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of John of the futility of watching or worrying about what other people are doing. After Jesus had told Peter that he would die a martyr’s death, Peter looked at the disciple John, “whom Jesus loved,” and said, “Lord, what about him?”
Then Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22-23)
We may not achieve everything in life that we want to. In fact, we probably won’t. The Lord may call us to work in a vocation that we did not want, or to live in a location that we did not choose. He may even call us out of this world in a way that we had not expected. But we must remember, though tempting, it is useless to respond to these circumstances by saying, “Lord, what about him?”
If I want to be depressed and discouraged, I can focus my attention on people who have what I think I want. If I want to live in peace, I can look at myself–ten years ago, five years ago, or even four months ago–and I can know that I am on the journey that God has for me, and no one else.
And that’s what matters.
When I returned from my run, I noticed my phone on the kitchen counter flashing red, alerting me of a new message. I picked it up and there was a photo of Henry holding up a small fish with a message from Joe, “Hank’s first fish! Sunfish!”
I was so relieved. Henry had caught his fish. But when I looked a little closer at the photo, I became concerned. Henry looked confused, almost disappointed, as if his first fishing experience was not quite what he had imagined.
I decided then that I would have to remind Henry that, even if the fish he caught may not have been as big as he’d hoped, it’s one more fish than he’d had the day before.