Compare and Contrast

With both hands tied behind my back. With all my fears, worries and hang-ups calling out from the sidelines. With all the mistakes, embarrassments and regrets of the past shifting the ground beneath my feet. I carry on.

Last week one of my daughters was awarded a distinction in an exam. She was delighted, of course. But when she got back to the class and got her certificate she found her mark was the lowest in a high-scoring set. They all had distinctions. And suddenly she felt less. She was no longer a success because of what the others had achieved. I instantly reached for some Mum Platitudes to make her feel better. Never Mind, These Things Happen, You Did Your Best And That’s What Counts, What A Great Teacher You All Have… you know, all that stuff. But I had to force the words out. Because I knew exactly how she felt. Seeing her score next to other, better ones tripped her up. She felt undermined and inadequate. Her success was now as good as a failure. And as I thought about the flip side of that I realised that in this mindset the only thing that would make her feel better would be beating the others. Which would provoke in them the same ‘not really good enough unless I’m better than-’ sadness she now felt.

Unhealthy as this is, I have to admit that I am no different. My achievements can seem paltry compared to those I measure myself against, consciously or not. Even though I know it’s nonsense. We’re all starting, and starting again, from different places, with different talents and gifts. Like the story Jesus tells about the man who gave different gifts in differing amounts to three men, and told them get on with it. The two with the most, 5 and 10 talents respectively, invested and reaped rewards. The last, given the least, moaned and criticised the man who gave it to him, burying it in the ground instead of doing something with it. He let self-pity and bitterness stop him doing anything useful with what he’d been given.

My attempts to comfort my daughter with borrowed wisdom – since I still haven’t cracked this one myself – sounded hollow and I soon shut up, much to the relief of both of us. She’s approaching eye-rolling teenage stage, so she probably wasn’t listening much anyway. In a world which invites us to compare ourselves with the thin, the clever, the rich and the successful in order to sell us stuff, we would need to be made of stone not to be tempted to measure our lives against the glossy ones we read or hear about. If I’m not careful I can forget that like the man in the story, I’m not going to be judged on someone else’s gifts, but on my own.

Day 25. Speech Impediment

A little over 3 weeks ago I started a Lent discipline. The challenge, or opportunity, depending on your personality, was to live an uncomplaining life from now until Good Friday. (It would probably be a good thing to continue with after that, but let’s not get carried away). So far, it has been humbling hearing all my unspoken complaints massing restlessly in my mind. I’ve had to do something with them all, so I have been telling God about them. God responds mostly of late with silence, which simply means he’s handballed it back to me. So then I have to really listen to it myself. Try to figure out what’s actually bugging me. And then either come up with a solution or get help. Yes, that means going back to God again. Contentment is becoming the simpler option, not because I don’t want God’s help (how foolish would that be?) but because it’s not worth all that time and emotion, and also, mysteriously, life is more peaceful when I just let go of my need to find fault.

This week again I noticed that  a lot of my complaints relate to my children, who are all busy with their own transitions, just like the rest of us. When they don’t behave the way I want them to, they earn The Speech, usually introduced by the phrase, “You know what? I am not putting up with/If you could just, for once….” and on and on and so forth. Until maybe a week ago I was quite satisfied that this aspect of my parenting didn’t need sorting. But since then, I have been hearing the speeches in my mind, kindly playlisted by God. As it says in Isaiah 55, his ways are not our ways. And even if his ways turn out better than anything I could come up with myself, the process is rarely straightforward. Or painless.

I’ve been trying to work out why, for example, I so hate having to repeat the same instruction to a child who will, I know, ignore it and then blame me for the outcome. Because it’s frustrating. It’s demoralising. It’s tedious. And it will happen again tomorrow. I realise I wish that they cared as much about whatever the issue is as I do, but the truth is that they don’t. Because they’re kids. In fact they may never care as much as I do. They may be starting out on a lifetime of chaos and poor dietary choices for all I know. But I will try to stop making speeches. Because I don’t enjoy listening to them, and because they haven’t worked. I think I’ll try instead to work with them on the non-negotiables without resorting to lists of misdemeanours stretching back into their infancy. Let’s see how that goes.

It’s not just the kids, either. (Yes, I’ve got a bit of work to do).  Someone very wise told me only yesterday that those differences between couples that make the early part of a relationship so exciting provide “lots of material to work through later” when those differences start to grate. I thought that was a beautifully positive spin on one of the hardest parts of life, learning to live with the tiny niggles that can drive people mad about each other.

So I’m shutting down even more as the days pass, abandoning yet another form of complaining, but starting to consider how to deal with the things that irritate, rather than just talk about them. Learning to pick up my mat and walk.