She was not aware of it, but one of Margaret’s secret purposes in life was to puff up my sagging ego. Margaret’s car was like Finneus J. Whoopie’s overstuffed closet in the cartoon, Tennessee Tuxedo. One day an archaeologist will uncover the fossilized remains of her auto. The stratified layers of debris will allow them to accurately reconstruct her diet, her occupation, and her monthly expenses. Margaret’s car was a combination office, storage facility, mobile restaurant, and trash heap.
Whenever I found myself parked next to Margaret’s car at my children’s elementary school, I’d find it difficult to keep custody of my eyes. In the shadow of her overstuffed jalopy, my otherwise disordered, unwashed vehicle appeared sleek, and organized. My own habit of eating on the road and composting the leftover organic remains on the floor of my car seemed, by comparison, almost normal. “I may be a little messy,” I rationalized, while I examine her heap, “but I’ve got a long way to go before I hit that kind of bottom!” My ego loved it when I parked next to Margaret.
I suspect that my paradoxically bony/soft physique will bethe equivalent of Margaret’s car for my fellow gym rats when I return to the rec. center. I’ve taken a long hiatus. It’s time to start working out again. I am anticipating a stifled laugh as onlookers see me straining beneath a bar that supports miniature disks the size of my grandmother’s tea plates. I am most certainly the “before” photograph on the fitness brochures. It remains to be seen if there will be an “after” photo in the next few months. I believe that I will provide a kind of motivational message to my fellow fitness fanatics.
“Look at him!” The message will read. “It may not seem like you’ve been progressing much, but by comparison, see how far you’ve come?!”
I remember providing a similar service to the sports moms and dads on my childrens’teams. Every so often I would somehow misread a schedule, and get one or another of my kids to a game or practice late. After frenzied car rides, Annalise, John Harry or Lizzie would lope across a field to join their teammates. I would slink over to the parental side of the field and try unobtrusively to blend in. Once again, I was the equivalent of Margaret’s car for a group of capable, organized parents.
The drive to compare oneself with others is complicated. There is a way in which making comparisons has survival value. Learning from another’s mistakes allows for the avoidance of a process of reinventing the spiritual and moral wheel over and over again…at one’s own expense. My younger brother claims that he kept himself out of a lot of painful high school circumstances by simply studying me, and avoiding the trail that I had blazed. Some comparisons have survival value.
But there are other kinds of comparisons that fall into the unfortunate category of parking next to Margaret’s car. They are merely exercises of the ego. Ego-driven comparisons are those that compel us to measure ourselves against someone—at their expense, or our own expense. One of the many problems with the habit of ego-driven comparisons, is the pain this habit produces in the one who is doing the comparing. While you are casting a superior look at Margaret’s car, out of the driver’s window on the left-hand side of the car, a shiny Bentley might pull up just outside the passenger, right-hand, side. There will always be a richer bank account than yours, colleagues who are more accomplished, gym-mates in better shape. The habit of indulging the ego through silly comparisons will inevitably lead to pain. But the ego is a tenacious houseguest that is not easily silenced.
In my life, I have known one, maybe two people who have achieved a level of spiritual maturity that has totally freed them of the ego’s drive to make comparisons. For the rest of us, a mindful spirituality laced with humor is a soothing medication. A contemplative life rooted in Divine Presence does not require us to kill our ego. The royal road to self-acceptance is to acknowledge when our ego has stepped into the driver’s seat of our soul. The trick is to develop a loving awareness of that part of the self that demands recognition, is driven by competition, that is busy looking for reasons to feel slighted, that seeks to engage in negative conversation about someone else (or conversely engages in negative internal conversation about the self). In your contemplative practice, can you come into Divine Presence and allow God to be that friend who can lovingly help you to have a good compassionate laugh at yourself?