The Comparison Trap

IMG_8026.JPG

On a recent Saturday I had the chance to fill in for a running coach friend, overseeing a training group she’s been leading. These were mostly new runners, some of whom are training for their first 5K or 10K, out for their weekend group run and looking for guidance and encouragement. I mainly coach individuals, so it was great (and a little daunting) to stretch my skills and try something new. 

I ended up sticking with the brand-new runners—as in, this was their second week of training: run 90 seconds, walk 2 minutes, repeat for 25 minutes. It was gratifying to go at their pace, remembering a time when that was really, reallydifficult for me—as it was for them that day—and reflecting on just how far I’ve come. (Marathon #4 in four weeks!) Who knows where this process will lead them, but it was joyous to contemplate what’s ahead of them, and hold out hope that they will gain as much strength and empowerment from their journey as I have from mine. Or, perhaps, that they tap into that strength and empowerment in other ways.

The next day, those lofty happy feelings came crashing back to earth when I read a Facebook humblebrag from another runner who ran her very first 5K the day before… and placed in her age group.

Sigh. 

After almost eight years of running, I’ve seen great personal progress, but remain stubbornly on the slow side of average. And on my good days, I’ve made my peace with it. Talk to a runner long enough, and pace will usually come up in conversation, but often it’s the least interesting part of a run. How you felt, what you saw, the peace of mind, the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, or even pushing yourself—these are the measures of a good run. Getting out there is what matters most... and if you’d told the seventh grade me, who gasped and seethed her way through the mile in PE class, that one day she would voluntarily do mile repeats at the track—at 5 a.m.—you would have gotten a big eye roll.

On my worse days, though, the comparison trap grabs me in its sharp, unforgiving jaws, holding me in place as the voices of Not Enough ring out: You’ve been at this for so long. Why aren’t you faster? You’re not a real runner.

Later that same weekend, my 10 year old, James, decided to put together one of the Raingutter Regatta boat kits we had left over from Cub Scouts. Margaret, always up for arts and crafts, joined him. Now, what you need to know about James is that he always opts out of the Raingutter Regatta. Hard to say exactly why, but I think our tender-hearted kid, who marches to a different drummer, doesn’t really care for this event, in which children go head to head in competition for the best boat, along with all the trash-talking that goes with it (however good-natured that chiding might be). 

IMG_8067.JPG

So I was touched by this spontaneous act of creation. It wasn’t about designing the best boat and winning the race. It was simply about having some fun on a Sunday afternoon: no evaluation, no benchmarks. 

Our world has an abundant supply of yardsticks, and no end of volunteers to wield them with perverse glee. Some of us are better at disregarding those evaluations than others, and social media sure doesn’t help. I don’t blame the new runner who dominated her age group; she should be happy and proud! My reaction wasn’t about her; it was about me: a sign that I need some self-care, some perspective, some kindness toward myself. Goals are great, but radical self-acceptance is some of the best fuel out there to help achieve them. (And if you don’t achieve them, you’re still beloved of God. Whew!)

Yesterday this Anne Lamott quote came my way: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” The comparison trap is most potent in an atmosphere of scarcity: for one person to win, another must lose; their good fortune is my misfortune. But the trap also snaps tight around us when our expectations are out of whack—when we’re too focused on “should,” when we grasp at unattainable and punishing ideals rather than loving what is.

You are a wonderful work in progress… and you are already who you are meant to be, right now. And so am I.

This reflection was sent to my email newsletter; subscribe to receive articles such as this, twice a month, right in your inbox.

World's Okayest, Japanese-Style

Happy June! Summer is here… almost. My kids still have two weeks of school left. As I watch Facebook friends post about vacations and lazy afternoons, we’re still in the thick of exams and projects. We’re so ready to be done. It feels like we limp across the finish line every year. Meanwhile swim season has begun, so the house is cluttered with backpacks and math packets AND goggles and wet swim suits. It’s chaotic and cluttered—not my favorite mode of being.

I wrote to you a couple months ago about #WorldsOkayest, which is my latest spiritual challenge. As a recovering perfectionist, it’s a constant struggle to remind myself to accept, and even love, the ragged edges of my life. Hence my interest in improv, as a way to confront that tendency in myself and transform it in a playful way. The fact is, perfectionism can keep us rigid and stuck. As I write in God, Improv, and the Art of Living: “Given the choice between the perfect action that remains in my head and the imperfect action that’s actually lived out, my natural inclination is to choose the former almost every time. But improv doesn’t allow for such theoretical perfection—messy reality is always the better course.” 

Turns out there’s an ancient Japanese philosophy at work here, known as wabi-sabi. It’s more of a sensibility than a doctrine, but as I understand, it’s about seeing beauty in simplicity, the ordinary, and the imperfect. 

wabisabi3.jpg

A friend recommended the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, and I’ve been reading and re-reading the slim volume as I consider the wabi-sabiness of my own life. Here are a few nuggets that resonate with me right now: 

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.

A wabi-sabi state of mind involves acceptance of the inevitable and appreciation of the cosmic order. 

Wabi-sabi is exemplified in that which is irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, and murky. (Oh how I love the sound of the word “murky”!)

Where do you see wabi-sabi in your life? Here are a few of mine:

  • The raggedness of my son’s hair. He refuses to get it cut and it’s driving me crazy… except it’s lovely and thick and perfect for ruffling, which he still lets me do at 10 years old.
  • The remnants of a pedicure I should really get redone, but I got it the week I was with my beloved clergy group, and it’s a sweet, imperfect reminder of that time.
  • This post. I feel like I should write more, write better, write meticulously. But it’s bedtime for the kids, and a glass of wine with my husband is waiting, so for this moment I will trust the spirit to speak through quick words.

Onward,
MaryAnn

Image is from the charming children's book Wabi-Sabi by Mark Reibstein. Wabi-Sabi is the name of the cat.

Order God, Improv, and the Art of Living 
Learn more about my coaching services

Salvation at the Grocery Store

My brother posted on Facebook today:

I sometimes feel like a juggler who is barely keeping up, but is constantly having bowling pins thrown at him. Or perhaps they're chainsaws.

I wrote about that sense of overwhelm (yes, that's a verb that needed to be nouned) in a recent post, Failure to Adult. Yesterday I had yet another minor freakout about some stressful things going on--I won't bore you with them, because they're mundane. But I realized that I was in dire need of some perspective: my basic needs are being met, my family is healthy, I have gratifying work and a loving family.

Perspective comes in all kinds of ways... like this sign:

 

IMG_7536

 

In case you're having trouble reading it, it's a sign alerting people with nut allergies to the fact that chestnuts would be displayed in open bins. This sign went up in early December--the "holiday season" in question--and was still on display as of May 20 at 11:30 a.m. when I snapped this picture like some weird grocery-store stalker. Unless chestnuts are the hot new Memorial Day item, this sign is five months out of date.

Barbara Brown Taylor likes to ask groups she speaks to, "What's saving your life right now?" What's saving my life right now is that dang sign--or at least, what the sign represents. This is the grocery-store equivalent of having your Christmas decorations up until spring. Or it's like the friend of mine who dropped off her kids at school today and saw other kids piling up supplies for an upcoming event on a table and realizing she'd completely forgotten.

I've decided that pretty much 100% of people feel this way--and apparently, some local businesses too.

I find it oddly comforting that, whether consciously or unconsciously, the various store personnel who pass this sign every day have determined there are more important things to worry about than getting the sign down. It's not hurting business. It's not in the way. And hey, come November they'll be ahead of the game.

We are all such individual and collective messes.

Hallelujah.

Friday Link Love: Darwin's Religion, and Saving the Planet through Slacking

  Away we go...

~

HD Photos of the Sun -- Obligatory Colossal Link

Alan Friedman photographs the sun from his own backyard. Amazing what the world offers us if we look:

sun-9

~

Work Less, Save the Planet -- Kate Sheppard, Mother Jones

 

I already shared this on FB/twitter but it bears repeating:

 

new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research concludes that if we all worked fewer hours, we could cut future global warming by as much as 22 percent by 2100.

 

Sabbath has environmental benefits! Yee-haw!

 

I was on God Complex Radio recently, and the discussion between Derrick and Carol following my interview touched on this exact thing. Good on them for being all cutting edge!

 

~

Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday -- Presbyterian Church (USA), Shannon Kershner

It's humbling to be mentioned in the same article as the totally awesome Theresa Cho. Thank you Shannon.

~

The Evolution of Religion, According to Darwin -- Elizabeth Drescher, Religion Dispatches

Was the great scientist a “proto-None”?

Pleins argues that reading Darwin and the theories he developed through the lens of an uncompromising rejection of religion has prevented us from seeing the full scope of Darwin’s genius, which reckoned with religion in evolutionary terms every bit as much as it did with natural selection or adaptation.

..."I’d say that Darwin teaches us that it is quite natural for humans to be religious and that it is appropriate for Darwinians to be curious about why humans seek a religious purpose to their lives. That doesn’t require that we think that religion is entirely artificial. That it’s merely a coping mechanism. One can be a Darwinian without having to condemn religion or the sense—a sense that Darwin often explored—that there is something more."

The book is called Evolving God and it's going on my Goodreads.

~

Spirituality in the (Snow) Storm -- Brad Hirschfield, Washington Post 

The spirituality of snow is a spirituality of repose. It offers the opportunity to celebrate simply being, not the doing which fills most of our lives most of the time. It literally creates a blanket which absorbs the noise that fills our ears during less snowy times.

I write in the book about Sabbath as a spiritual snow day. That said, an actual snow day would be nice, O DC area weather gods.

~

Labor of Love: The Enforced Happiness of Pret a Manger -- Timothy Noah, The New Republic

I've written about emotional labor before; here's another article about emotional labor in the restaurant business:

For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me. How else to explain her visible glow whenever I strolled into the shop for a sandwich or a latte? Then I realized she lit up for the next person in line, and the next. Radiance was her job.

...

In the three decades since Hochschild published The Managed Heart, the emotional economy has spread like a noxious weed to dry cleaners, nail salons, even computer-repair shops. (Think of Apple's Genius Bars—parodied by The Onion as "Friend Bars"—where employees are taught to be empathetic and use words like "feel" as much as possible.) Back when she wrote her book, Hochschild estimated that about one-third of all jobs entailed "substantial demands for emotional labor." Today, she figures it's more like half. This is, among other things, terrible news for men, who (unlike women) are not taught from birth how to make other people happy. Perhaps that explains why men are losing ground in the service economy.

~

How Parenting Became a DIY Project -- Emily Matchar, Atlantic

From home birth to homemade baby food to homeschooling, raising kids is a way for parents to express their individuality.

We see [the] principle of individualism writ large when it comes to parenthood. Parents often value individuality—both their own and their children's—above other concerns.

These main factors have led to the growth of what historian Stephanie Coontz calls "the myth of parental omnipotence"—the idea that parents can and should personally ensure their children's success through their own hard work and hyper-attentiveness.

I've been casting about for a Lent discipline. I finally settled on it: to do nothing extra. I will be content with good enough. That sounds a bit lame on the surface---I'm going to half-a** my way through Lent---but I think I'm on to something. That omnipotence stuff is very powerful in our culture, and not just with parenting. The myth of omnipotence seduces us into thinking we're in charge of our lives. We are not---and what could be more Lenten than that?

~

50 Sure Signs that Texas is Actually Utopia -- BuzzFeed

enhanced-buzz-11300-1360191348-10

Texas politics are seven kinds of crazy, but I love this list. And the counter-list.

I'd remove the Bush twins though, and add this lady, of blessed memory:

We miss you, Molly.

~

Have a great weekend, everyone. Even if you're not from Texas.

Perfect vs. Interesting

I enjoyed this post by Seth Godin:

There are two jobs available to most of us:

You can be the person or the organization that's perfect. The one that always ships on time, without typos, that delivers flawlessly and dots every i. You can be the hosting company or the doctor that might be boring, but is always right.

Or you can be the person or the organization that's interesting. The thing about being interesting, making a ruckus, creating remarkable products and being magnetic is that you only have to be that way once in a while. No one is expected to be interesting all the time.

Fedex vs. Playwrights Horizons.

When an interesting person is momentarily not-interesting, I wait patiently. When a perfect organization, the boring one that's constantly using its policies to dumb things down, is imperfect, I get annoyed. Because perfect has to be perfect all the time.

Now, I have a couple of "yes-buts" to this (or if you prefer, "yes-ands"). For one thing, I think people do get impatient with interesting people who've gotten not-interesting. People have short attention spans. That doesn't mean that we should force things, but it is a dynamic to be aware of.

Also, this post gives the impression that any given organization has either route available to them. FedEx needs to be perfect, and in that industry, that's a noble thing to strive for. Nobody wants a document shipping company that's known for being quirky and imprecise. (Southwest Airlines seems to straddle the perfect/interesting divide, staying true to its goofy "howdy y'all" Texas roots while maintaining a generally good record---and I say that even after the events of this week.)

All of this said, this gets me thinking in all kinds of directions. I've been reading and hearing a lot about the Spider-Man musical. Man, what a fiasco. I mean, what a spectacular fiasco! And the amount of money that's been sunk into this thing is unbelievable. But isn't there something really exciting about failure of this magnitude? It just makes me feel kind of fizzy inside. They tried to do something magnificent... and it failed. Really failed. (So far.) But that's life, isn't it? That's energizing. It makes me want to try something really crazy just to see if I can pull it off.

I think this perfect/interesting thing has obvious implications for the church. Interesting is a good goal. Perfection is an impossible one, but that doesn't stop us from trying. I've seen churches go about their worship and ministry in a very pinched, judgy sort of way. Precision becomes the highest value, not warmth or authenticity.

Mind you, I'm not condoning sloppiness. And when it comes to life-or-death stuff, let's not be cavalier: our actions have consequences, serious ones. Just ask the folks at Vienna Presbyterian Church. We need to strive to be impeccable in some key areas such as safety and victim response (again, see Vienna Pres. article). I'd even argue that hospitality to guests is a place that leaves little margin for error.

But worship? Education? Mission? Let's embrace the quirkiness. (There's a reason my favorite metaphor for church is the Island of Misfit Toys. Thank you to my friend JT for that one.)

One of the questions I like to ask people, especially preachers, is courtesy of Bob Shelton, former president of Austin Seminary:

Would you rather be wrong or boring?

Setting aside the wry reply that one can be both, for me there is no contest. I'd rather be wrong. (At the hospital bedside is a little different. Being wrong can do permanent spiritual damage---God must have needed your loved one in heaven... At least now you know you can get pregnant...---which is why we're taught in seminary to show up and shut up. But when I'm in that pulpit, no question. Wrong.)

It's interesting to put the wrong v. boring thing together with the perfect v. interesting thing. If you're a preacher, or a church, that strives for perfection, you've got to lean towards boring because you can't afford to be wrong. You've got to get it right, because perfection requires taking yourself very seriously, which means others will too. Your value on perfection does not create a space for people to evaluate your words for themselves.

But if your goal is to be interesting---to preach and live a gospel that really does turn things upside down, and to occasionally miss the mark in the process---well, that requires humility. And with humility, you give people permission to say, "No, that just doesn't sound right. But it sure made me think." So being wrong has less of a dire consequence. By taking yourself less seriously, you allow others to take the process seriously.

The good news about the Good News, I happen to think, is that Right converges with Interesting, so you don't have to choose. You get a two-for-one deal.

Love wins. Death is not the end. The last shall be first. Lose your life to save it.

Interesting, interesting, interesting, interesting.

Knitting Misadventures: The Shawl

I decided to have a lo-fi weekend after last week's mental lapses. Yes, that's plural---I forgot another meeting on Friday. Clearly the Spirit is throwing the red flag, sounding the alarms, ah-OOga! ah-OOga! This reverend-mother is on overload! So I took the weekend off from Facebook and the computer in general. I love you guys, but it was excellent. I feel much more grounded today. One of the things I did was work on the shawl. I've been working on this thing for years, no exaggeration, but I'm almost done---I've gotta bind off and do some ribbing around the neck. It's been something of a disaster, actually. It's a lace pattern, which was a new thing for me anyway, but I found out early on that the pattern in the book was wrong. I got a corrected pattern off the internet, but now it drapes much shorter than it's supposed to. (Some correction!)

I also made some mistakes along the way which are pretty obvious. I realized it at the time, but I couldn't figure out how to unknit psso's and k2togs. And let me remind you knitters out there---check the dye lot. It's not hugely obvious, but...

Robert and I had a laugh over it last night. I tell people that my knitting is in the same spiritual vein as the Persian rug makers who always put in a mistake because only God is perfect. Except that they do it on purpose.

Oh well. A recovering perfectionist, one of my intentions this month is "make a mistake" and this shawl is replete with them.

But it will turn out fine, and I will wear it with gladness, because of all the history that's in it. I'll wear it and recall the fabulous, witty woman from my previous church who took me to the cozy knitting store and encouraged me to buy this rich blue yarn. And I'll remember my clergy systems group, and The Well, and my fellow writers in Collegeville. I attended each of these gatherings with this monstrosity on my lap, knitting away while we talked and kvetched; I occasionally had to stop mid-row to wipe tears of laughter from my eyes. And I'll remember many, many, many hours of watching LOST with Robert. Those memories are all knitted up in it: Linda G. and self-differentiation and "WTF" awards and the book of Isaiah and favorite novels and "not Penny's boat."

That's life, eh?

That is life.

Image: Someone else's version of the shawl I'm knitting. I wonder what memories are tangled up in hers.

Reverb #6: Make

Prompt: Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? We're making a lot of our Christmas gifts this year, and buying less stuff. So I have made a lot of different things in the past week or so, but I can't say what any of them are because gift recipients read this blog. But here are a few materials we have used:

  • butter
  • acrylic paint
  • sharpie
  • wrapping paper
  • nutmeg
  • laptop

Slight digression: We've been studying the Advent Conspiracy at church, and yesterday the topic was "give more," which emphasizes "relational gifts" rather than the easy and impersonal sweater or gift card. Back when Robert and I were newly married, we did the Hundred-Dollar Holiday for several years. I've loved Bill McKibben's stuff for years and wish we were related; I suppose we are if you go back far enough.

We didn't stick to $100 strictly, but we bought very little other than supplies for whatever we were making. We did it because we resonated with the concept of simplicity and spending less, particularly at Christmas. We also did it because we had more time than money back then. Now the exact opposite is true---it's time that's scarce, and the time we have is measured in little fragments between piano lessons and dinner, or kid bedtime and adult bedtime. So it feels more sacrificial, in a way, to make things. The Advent Conspiracy folks are really big on making gifts ultra-personal: thinking about each specific person, what he or she means to you, and what would make the person feel loved. We're not really doing that, but I like the place we're standing nonetheless.

Back to reverb: one thing I want to finish is a shawl/poncho that I started a year ago and have worked on in fits and starts. It's been a bit of a disaster, as much of my knitting turns out to be. It's a little short in the torso---the pattern in the book had a mistake in it, and the correction makes everything a bit more compressed (it's a lace pattern). I have no idea what I'm going to do about that so I've been in this sort of perfectionistic denial about the whole thing. I really need to just finish it already and figure out what to do.

I'm thinking fringe. Fringe makes everything better.