[Word count: 1255. Approximate read time: 4-5 minutes]
One day, I was talking to a mentor about how it drove me crazy that a particular woman would not so much as give me the time of day. No eye contact, no casual hello, nothing. One would’ve thought she was harnessing her mental energy to metaphysically wish away my existence. The world has never known reception so icy. I could’ve stored raw meat on her shoulders for months.
It dominated my thoughts. Did I say something to offend her? Was my hygiene bad? Does she resent guys with hair longer than hers? Does she dislike Black men? Skinny men? Eventually, I didn’t really want her attention anymore. I just wanted to know why I couldn’t have it, and what rendered me ineligible. Maybe I wasn’t the fit for her. And that’s okay, I guess. But things like this exacerbate a long standing tradition of feeling like I’m not something enough. Pick any something:
- Not Black enough.
- Not strong enough.
- Not man enough.
- Not important enough.
- Not cool enough.
- Not young enough.
- Not established enough.
- Not charming enough.
- Not skilled enough.
- Not accomplished enough.
- Not Christian enough.
- Not persistent enough.
- Not talented enough.
- Not attractive enough.
- Not driven enough.
Bear this in mind. I am aware that I am indeed all of the above. It just seems like it’s never enough.
Well who says?
“When did all this happen? You’ve got so many advantages! You’re handsome, smart, talented…” The list goes on when you let people who love and support you tell the story. However, not everyone is so quick to break out the pom-poms and cheer you on to greatness. The moment you encounter rejection or resistance, it challenges everything positive that you know about yourself.
Perhaps you don’t get hired, your romantic advances are rebuffed, or you’re denied entry into the social circle of your choice. At some point in life, something will give you pause to consider you may not be quite as “good” as you thought (or were told) you were. You’re then likely to look over at the person who won the prize you sought to claim, just out of curiosity. As you peer over to inspect what they have in their arsenal that you don’t, this knocks over the comparison domino. Then everything else starts to fall down.
And compared to what?
“Imagine us throwing our lives away
Because we’re listening to the voice inside, that chant
That says we’ll never be significant if we can’t fit in…
We’ve been giving in to the lie that says that we’ve got to
Keep up with the Joneses or get left behind…”
—B. Reith, “Mess”
My friend Morris told me, “comparison is the root of all unhappiness.” The rest of the quote says, “and the ruin of all self-esteem.” A recent study shows that people on Facebook commonly see others’ “attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates” and become convinced that their own life sucks by comparison. Comparison is the demon. It says I’m no good, unless I can be better than someone else.
The same study quotes Montesquieu’s paradoxical musing on happiness: “If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” Just so it’s explicitly stated: they are not.
“There are no big shots in reality, y’all. We all in the same boat, dealing with the same issues, same problems, same stuff. Don’t even buy it. All the perpetration. All this ‘oh, we don’t have problems.’ That’s a lie. I know that the enemy is doing the same thing to me that he is doing to everybody else.” —Lauryn Hill
If you ever find you resent someone’s happiness so much you want to outdo them to regain the pride you lost, then you’ve knocked over another domino. Welcome to the wonderful world of one-upmanship where your primary methods of increasing self-esteem are cheap, petty, and ephemeral at best.
Fight for your right
This is why I resent being goaded into competition. When stakes are low, a little competition for sport makes games fun. But having good self-esteem isn’t a game. It should never be on the craps table. I shouldn’t have to contend just to feel good any given day. That means I can’t just be content within myself. It tells me the only way to have self-worth is by lowering someone else’s in combat. Is that what I’ve been reduced to? And when there are no lesser specimens to conveniently cannibalize, then what happens?
“Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom – it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.” —James 3:13-16 (The Message Bible)
Enough is enough
Humans are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and rejection hurts. So it’s only natural to observe those who gain acceptance and emulate them in order to get the pleasure we think they have. That may accomplish our short term goal, but in doing so, you may accidentally contort yourself into someone other than God intended you to be.
Even before Psalm 139:14 told us we were fearfully and wonderfully made, Genesis 1:31 said that after God created mankind, he called us good. That endorsement alone should be enough. In Numbers 23:8 when King Balak sent the prophet Balaam to curse Israel, Balak defied the king and pushed back saying, “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?” If God isn’t condemning me, then no one else should be challenging his judgment either. Not even me.
This is my intention. When I shop at Target these days, I don’t even bother with the DVD section. I probably own 80% of all the DVDs I will ever care about in life. I can go home and just enjoy what I’ve already got. I’m not thinking about what I didn’t buy, couldn’t buy, or what someone else proudly shuffled into their car. I’m just happy, and it didn’t cost me anything. Do you realize how profound that kind of contentment is? Peace like that is too good to only have in Target. I want it all over my life, and I believe it’s transferrable.
“I’m tryin’ to find my peace
I was made to believe there’s somethin’ wrong with me
And it hurts my heart
It really hurts my heart…”
— Janelle Monae, “Cold War”
I may feel down any number of days, but this much I know: there is nothing wrong with me. What I want is to be able to assess what I’ve got, how I do things, who I am, and the singular way God made me and be satisfied with it all. I may work for and acquire some other things, but I want to be at least 80% happy with what I already have. And when someone looks at me with disdain asking where the 20% went, I want to tell them, “Look. This is all I got,” and make no apologies.