My older son told me last night that he had attained second place in western Massachusetts high-school discus-throwing standings. He is going to another meet down in Connecticut on Saturday and hopes to improve his lot.
I was happy for him and told him so. He is doing well academically and doing well in his chosen sport.
How nice to climb whatever ladders anyone might put in front of themselves... to measure, to sweat, to attain. And it struck me that comparisons are the most obvious way of attainment. How would anyone know if they were any good if they did not compare?
I was happy for my son because he had probably outstripped whatever achievements I had once imagined for myself ... a first-place trophy in a college billiards competition; a first-place prize from the New England Associated Press for a series on alcoholism; and, although it was not a first prize, coming in fourth in a class of 32 at language school in the army ... the best academic training I ever had.
Being 'the best' or striving to be 'the best' -- I guess it's par for the course, a way of measuring and assessing progress and accomplishment... meeting the challenge and succeeding at something you consider worth succeeding at.
Spiritual endeavor brings with it the wonderful and horrific realization that there is no way to compare, no real way to succeed. But the habitual mind is so full of blue ribbons and all that they imply that it is hard not to squirm and struggle to find the markers that delineate ordinary success stories. There are the teachers of old ... seeming to stand on high and distant and light-strewn mountain tops. There are teachings which confound the student even as they weave a magnetic web. How wonderful it might be to come in first, to accomplish, to succeed.
But no matter how many books anyone writes or how many lectures they give or how popular they are among fellow practitioners ... no matter how they grovel with "compassion" or shine penetrating observations on the scene...still, the comparisons and yardsticks do not really compute. They offer no trophies. The best is somehow not the best ... or at any rate it is not the best by comparison. To a first-place mind, this can be a terrible disappointment. If there is no corner office to attain, how could anyone gauge their expertise and accomplishment?
Getting used to the incomparable nature of spiritual life is no easy task. Some people never get over the blue ribbons of comparison. Human beings are social creatures and comparisons create connections even as they create separations. To stand on your own two feet seems to fly in the face of a social existence ... lonely and distant and austere.
But perhaps there is another way of seeing things. If there are no comparisons -- no first place finishers -- then everybody comes in first and the social connections, rather than being severed, are asserted with a more realistic force. And from there, it is a small step to the recognition that since everything is already connected (so to speak) there is no need to connect and compare.
Daisies are daisies and roses are roses -- how about them apples?