Ain’t it great to be smug

HALF-EMPTY MASON JAR

By LESLIE SMITH TOWNSEND

Feet pounding and arms pumping, I round the corner of the running track, the scuffed up lane-lines blurring and joining like roads cresting at the horizon. Twelve laps equal one mile; I will run two.

I’m annoyed at first by the sound of athletic shoes squeaking to a sudden stop on the basketball court nearby. I listen to the muffled shouts of ballplayers and take in the mingling scents of sweat and industrial air conditioning. My body protests. It is half-past three in the afternoon, and I’d rather be napping. I imagine a friendly superhero lending me momentum, reeling me in on a line that tugs me gently forward. For a moment, I forget the tenderness of the balls of my feet and the tightness in my knees, the sensation of bone against bone. Run, Leslie, run. Suddenly, I recall last night’s dream. I was at camp with friends, and we scrabbled up a gravel incline. At the top, I took off running. My feet flew along the level terrain as if not one thing tethered me to this earth. I ran free—totally unencumbered. Then I remembered to look back and make sure my friends made it.

Running makes saints of sinners—no one to bump up against; no conflict; no demand; no timekeeper; no boundaries. I run in circles, after all.

At this moment, as sweat pools along my hairline and the nape of my neck, a younger woman, ponytail flapping with the rhythm of her stride, passes me. She’s wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with “Christ the Solid Rock” and a silhouette of a male figure, hair flying, as he strums an electric guitar. She has on black nylon shorts. Her feet barely make a sound as she passes. She is not sweating or straining. She looks like a filly in the field for whom running is pure play.

For a moment, I catch her tailwind and pump my legs faster. My mind exits its imaginative track and takes stock: she is younger, more fit, and undoubtedly a better person than me. “Sure, she looks great,” I tell myself, “but maybe she’ll only last a couple of laps.” Reassured, I wait for her to fail.

Next, I pass a heavy-set guy whose labored breath sounds like a wheezing washing machine. In that instant, I glory in my superiority. Surely I am more fit, more attractive and less likely to die from an asthma or heart attack.

These thoughts pass through my mind so rapidly, I barely notice. It is only the absence of distraction that enables me to catch myself in these acts of petty rivalry. Darn! I like to think of myself more highly than this.

All of us compare ourselves to friends, coworkers, siblings, neighbors, and spouses or partners. We are better or worse, smarter or dumber, one-up or one-down. As Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, imagining a radio station, KFKD, playing in her head: “Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.”

This business of comparing ourselves to others is no good. There is a Hebrew proverb that reads, “Whoever compares oneself to another is without understanding.”

Recently, I recalled trips in which I’d accompanied my mother to the podiatrist to treat a chronically infected toe. I thought, “If only my mother would eat healthily, exercise, quit drinking and take fewer medications, she wouldn’t have so many health problems.”

Then I had two moles removed. One was large and left a half-inch crater on my right leg just below my knee. I followed doctor’s orders for its care, and it seemed to be healing. The wound started itching, which I took as a good sign. One day, it felt tender again. The rim of skin around the wound turned bright red and appeared inflamed. I worried it might be infected. But how could this be when I had done everything right?

Suddenly I remembered my harsh judgment toward my mother. Though I’d known from my experiences working as a hospital and hospice chaplain that anyone could suffer health problems, I’d ignored this truth in favor of my selfish need to place myself beyond hardship. If someone’s bad health could be construed as his or her own fault, I could comfort myself with the conviction I was safe.

Sometimes the sequence between my judgment and development of a similar condition is so speedy, it’s spooky. It’s all but impossible to ignore the lesson I’m meant to learn.

I have a relative who’s been through hell this last year. As a result of multiple losses, he’s missed social cues, which can be annoying. Each of his stories involves himself as the victim of injustice. My clinical training as a psychotherapist leads me to ask how he is contributing to his own victimhood.

Immediately, I am seized by a memory of my own helplessness—how for three years I suffered through a separation, custody battle, divorce, financial crisis and loss of friends. My primary identity was that of a victim. In light of this recollection, how dare I judge my family member? How could I possibly feel anything but profound compassion?

Robert West writes: “Nothing is easier than fault-finding; no self-denial, no brains, no character is required to set up in the grumbling business.”

Why do we persist in fault-finding? In a culture dominated by competition, we’ve grown accustomed to bolstering our low self-esteem by comparing ourselves to others whom we see as less capable. The alternative to grumbling is compassion—the sentiment that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Matthew Fox names two obstacles to compassion: contempt for the wretched and assurance of one’s own power (One River, Many Wells). I think it’s our own wretchedness we’re trying to escape. What better than a sense of our power to lift us up out of the pit?

The holy scriptures of all the world’s great religions mandate we treat others as we would want to be treated.

Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udanavarga 5:18).

Islam: “No one of you is a believer until you desire for someone else that which you desire for yourself” (Sunan, edited).

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not to others. That is the entire Law: all the rest is commentary” (Talmud Shabbat 31a, edited).

Christianity: “Whatever you wish others would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets,” (Matthew 7:12, edited).

When we recognize our common humanity—the fact that we are all weak and strong, healthy and sick, intelligent and ignorant—we embrace one another in love and solidarity. How liberating! If we’re all in this together, then none of us have to be smart, healthy and successful all the time. When I’m weak and vulnerable, you can be strong. When you’re down, I’ll lift you up.

Today, as I walk away from the solitude of my desk and pass another on the road or on the running track, I will catch myself entertaining fantasies of greatness or defeat. It’s the ethics of competition overruling the ethics of love.

Can we cease comparing ourselves with one another in ways that puff us up and put others down? Can we reorient ourselves toward love of neighbor and of self?

“Some day,” writes Teilhard de Chardin, “after mastering the winds, the waves, the tide and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of Love, and then for the second time in the History of the world, we will have discovered fire.”

In my dreams, I fly unencumbered and weightless, forgetting everything but the exhilaration of running free.

Assistant Editor Leslie Smith Townsend is a pastoral counselor in private practice.  A composite excerpt of her memoir appears in the anthology Voices of Alcoholism (The Healing Project. 2008).


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