|Print | Back||December 24, 2009|
In The VillageLooking back and comparing with others is often fruitless
by Orson Scott Card
We take stock of our lives, from time to time. As some milestone approaches -- a birthday, a new year -- we look back and assess ourselves.
It's good to ask ourselves, "How am I doing?" But it's sad when we use such times to compare ourselves to other people.
Some people compare in order to gloat. Both David Merrick and Gore Vidal have been quoted as saying, more or less, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."
Some people compare in order to excuse themselves. They see other people's successes and say, "They got all the luck. I just can't catch a break." As if there were nothing they could do now to improve their place in life.
Some compare in order to beat themselves up. "Here I am, thirty years old, and look what other thirty-year-olds have accomplished! I'm a failure."
I know very well an accomplished woman, keenly intelligent, who has influenced the lives of many for good -- but she has always felt like a failure because she had neither money nor a bachelor's degree.
Yet I know many women with wealth, with doctorates, who would regard her as the most fortunate of women, and wish they had accomplished what she has.
All my life I've loved to sing, and over the years, without any formal training, I improved my voice to the point where, in my 40s, I was able to sing all the high parts in the chorus of My Fair Lady. I sing in the ward choir and take pleasure in singing with family and friends.
Yet as I now age out of that high tenor range, I feel keenly the fact that I didn't do more with my voice. I compare myself to real singers and feel as if I failed.
Yet it's what I chose. I spent my effort on writing fiction, plays, and screenplays. The singers I compare myself to practiced constantly. They took every opportunity to perform. They honed their skills.
I was once invited to take part as one of the soloists in a performance of The Messiah. It was a moment when I really had to face the difference between my dreams and my achievements. I knew what I expected, as an audience member, from a Messiah soloist. I also knew that, if I worked hard for months, I could probably do it.
But I did not have the time to put in that work. I had writing deadlines to meet. I had speeches to give, meetings to travel to, friends to visit with, books to read in order to have something to write or say.
And at that moment I realized the difference between ambition and daydreaming. My degree of "success" at singing reflects exactly the amount of effort I put into it.
The gloaters, the excusers, the regretters all make the mistake of comparison, as if the achievements or failures of others erased our own. Yet God has no quota such that, when enough people have been saved, all the rest will be turned away.
The Savior said, in parable, that those who were hired in the morning for a penny have no call to resent those who were hired much later in the day, and receive the same penny for their work (Matt. 20: 1-16).
There is no life without missed opportunities which will never come again. What is the point of regretting that I chose this, when I might have chosen that, unless what I chose was sin? Then I must change.
But past sins cannot be undone. We must change ourselves so that from here on we will do right.
That is all that any of us can do: Choose the path we will follow from now on.
Fortunately, the path of righteousness is always only one step away. We have merely to take that step and begin to move forward on the right road, and our offering will be acceptable to the Lord.
If this is true of our choices between right and wrong, why should we waste even a moment regretting choices that have no moral component?
Perhaps you didn't get a college degree on the same schedule as others; perhaps you didn't marry when you might have, or have children at the age you now wish you had begun, or make less money than you might have in a different career.
Those years are gone, and you learned from them whatever you learned, and gave to others whatever you gave. No one else lived your life -- they lived their own. Comparisons are a waste of time.
Let us look at what is still possible for us in the future, find the best use of the time we have left, and then eagerly pursue the good causes that are within our reach.
Don't look at others to compare, but rather to offer help, or ask for it.
Don't look backward with regret, but rather forward with hope.
I think of the greatest script of the twentieth century, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. An ambitious, discontented young man, Richard Rich, comes to Thomas More to ask him to help advance his career. More, seeing that worldly success would destroy young Rich, offers him a teaching position.
More: "Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one."
Rich: "If I was, who would know it?"
More: "You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that."
All our comparisons with other people are really about ambition and fame. We judge ourselves as the world judges, instead of seeing ourselves through the eyes of Christ.
We must temper our ambition to fit within what is both possible and good. Only then will our remaining years of life, however long or short, be well and happily spent.
Only then will we be greeted by the Savior with the words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."
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