Yesterday I referred to this excellent blog reflection by Jeffrey Overstreet. I've continued to think about what he wrote today and am convicted by it, convicted of the degree to which I also allow myself to be influenced by a corrosive competitiveness. My gifts lie in other areas than Overstreet's, but that is not the issue. As he writes:
“Our world reduces everything to competition—writing, cinema,singing, cooking. Even the news is full of shouting matches. These cheapen the arts they employ. They divide us into teams. They pollute our understanding of success. They blind us to the beauty of the people in front of us, and the mysteries at work within them.”
Looking at my work over the past several years, I can easily become discouraged, even despondent, when I compare it to work others have done in that same time period. I feel that, by comparison, I've accomplished less, or my work has not been as spectacular or fruitful—any number of other comparisons could be used. I allow myself to feel like a failure because, in my mind, I don't measure up to my own or someone else's ideal of what should be. In my mind, I view life as a competition and I'm losing. And I don't like losing.
The same feeling can come over me when I think of myself as a father and husband. I compare myself to other families and, knowing my own weaknesses and those of my family, I feel like a failure because I don't have the radiant, happy “Christian” family that so many churches and Christians tell me I should have (and to help me achieve this, they will gladly sell me their books, retreats and various other helps, most of which just leave me feeling more like a failure.) I could identify so well with my friend Micky in what she wrote the other day, even if our specific circumstances are somewhat different. She writes of the pressure to conform, but I see in her description of her life and the pressures she feels also a strong underlying current of competition.
It's an ugly secret in the Christian community. We don't speak of competition. In fact we speak a lot of harmony, love and affirmation. But underneath I often feel an unspoken message of competition. We compare ourselves to one another and, if we don't think we measure up as well as the other person or to some "biblical" ideal, we feel like failures and our self-worth falls accordingly. I'm sure there are many out there for whom this is not an issue, but I suspect there are plenty of others like myself for whom this is a real issue.
When I accept this message of competition and comparison, the life within me and the joy in what I do drains from me, as Overstreet described. I divide those in my world into teams. Those I feel favorable toward are on “my team” and those who I envy are on the “other team,” when in fact there need not be any teams at all. If I want, I can choose to rejoice in the successes of others without interpreting it as a criticism or statement of failure on my part. I'm not them. And I'm not required to be them. I need to stop looking at others to determine how I'm doing. It robs me of joy. It makes me critical and cynical. I want to stop competing and start living. I will have successes and failures. I may accomplish some goals and fail to reach others. My work and my family will almost certainly not look like others. And they don't have to.
Years ago Amy Grant sang a short song whose chorus I still sing in my mind occasionally:
All I ever have to be is what you made me
Any more or less would be a step out of your plan
As you daily recreate me help me always keep in mind
That I only have to do what I can find
And all I ever have to be,
All I have to be
Is what you've made me.
I think I need to sing that more often – perhaps every morning. Overstreet says it well:
“I want to run like that—not to win medals, not to live up to the expectations of others, not to meet deadlines or dazzle audiences, but to discover what is possible....I need to leave the clamor of the arena so I can hear the call, the voice that will find me another two yards.”