Recently I spent time with a friend comparing notes on a mutual hobby and sharing our finished work and works in progress. As we examined her work and my work I recognized - and I'm here to declare to you all - she is better than I am. Her work is more careful and precise and her finished product is more professional than mine. She is superior.
Anyone who is conscious of their surroundings and other people has, at one time or another felt inferior. After all, a sense of inferiority, by definition, must come from comparison. To be 'inferior' there must be something 'superior' to which you are comparing.
We grow up doing this comparison in our culture and it stays with us throughout our lives. Competition, in any endeavor, exposes us to this. One tennis player has a superior serve to another. One singer, a superior voice. One dancer, a superior kick or jump. When I was in college I competed in Forensics and then went on to coach as a professional. The activity is filled with those judgments - this performance is superior to that, this speech, this delivery style, this supporting evidence. I continue it as a teacher. This paper is superior in writing style; this speech is superior in expression.
Most of us learn to live with those evaluations quite well and to accept them as a commentary on our strength or interest in a certain area. We value those judgments as a means of improving our skills in areas we care about. If we know what 'superior' is, we are better able to strive for it. We accept that we can't be the best in everything and we don't want to be. Some things we care about and other things we don't. Some things matter to our advancement in career or relationship, others don't. We pick and choose and are the better for it.
There is, also, another feeling of inferiority. This is the irrational sense of inferiority that is based on a faulty judgment of our own worth, the worth of another, the importance of an event, skill, or situation. One of my more vivid memories of this sense of inferiority comes from High School. Now, I realize some of you are laughing and thinking that there's absolutely nothing unique about this. And, of course, you are right. High school is filled with all the elements that make for those types of comparisons and, given adolescent sensibilities and hormones, make them memorable.
The significance of this event, though, is that nobody did anything intentionally. No one set out to hurt me or 'make me feel' inferior. I did it to myself. It happened in typing class. (Those of you who grew up using computers, go ask an old person what a typewriter is and why we had to take a class learning to use one!) It was winter and it was cold, both outside and in. My high school was built in the early 1900s and had high ceilings and incredibly large double hung windows and was, consequently, extremely drafty when the winter winds blew. Two girls were sitting in the row in front of me - Patty and Yvonne. Patty was shivering and complained of being cold. Yvonne glanced over at her and remarked "Well, you're wearing a summer shirt, what did you expect?" They both laughed and the incident was over.
And there I sat. I looked at them both. Yvonne was wearing a heavy ski sweater in a style very popular in the mid-70s. Patty was wearing a cotton shirt. It had short sleeves, a v-neck, buttoned up the front, had a tie that went to the back and the fabric was printed with some sort of Holly Hobbie doll design also very popular during that era. (Again, for the young - a Google search will teach you about Holly Hobbie.) I looked at Yvonne. I looked at Patty. And I realized that my family was poor.
I was wearing a cotton shirt with a cardigan sweater over it. This was the first time I had ever heard the expression "summer shirt." In my house, you had a shirt. You wore the shirt. If you were cold, you put a sweater on over the shirt. It didn't matter if it were summer or winter - the shirt was to be worn. You didn't have very many of them so your options were rather limited. But at that moment, I realized that other people had seasonal wardrobes. They had shirts they wore only in the summer. And they had enough shirts that they could put them away and wear different shirts in the winter.
At that moment, I judged myself 'inferior.' Did my classmates judge me that way? Maybe they did. Probably they didn't even spare a thought for my 'wardrobe.' What's important is that I judged myself. I found myself lacking. I came to the conclusion that my family's financial situation was inferior and that those who had more money were somehow superior. Time, of course, certainly helped me understand that there were many more important things in life than money. The fact is, we were poor. Our family income was inferior to other families that we knew. But that didn't have to define who I was.
I'd like to say that I carried the lesson on with me and never felt inferior again. Sadly, I can't. On occasion, I'm still susceptible to it. Most of us are familiar with one of Eleanor Roosevelt's more famous quotes - "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." And most of us, on our more healthy and well-adjusted days, can agree with her whole-heartedly. But when we're tired, or maybe when we're feeling blue about some event in the world or in our life, or maybe just when the gray sky of winter is gray one too many days in a row, we let it get to us. The insensitive comment made by a friend or a family member or a colleague can still, on one of our less well-adjusted days, take us to that place.
Back in High School it didn't take me too long to figure out that money was not the only value and certainly wasn't the most important one. I was able to recognize that other things - character, compassion, generosity - were more important than one's bank balance. Many of those criteria that we judge ourselves and others by are probably, especially from an eternal perspective, pretty warped. Wealth, physical attractiveness, fame, job prestige - as we see in the papers every day - are fleeting and they don't guarantee happiness. And those things certainly don't guarantee a superior character in those who hold them.
American Archbishop Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979) said it this way - "God has given different gifts to different people. There is no basis for feeling inferior to another who has a different gift. Once it is realized that we shall be judged by the gift we have received, rather than the gift we have not, one is completely delivered from a false sense of inferiority." Ultimately, our purpose in life is not to live up to anyone else's (or our own, for that matter) random standards. It is to be who we are - in fullness, giving our best.
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