Planted: September 1, 2022
Last tended: February 25, 2023
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From the Selected Essays section of Valerie Monroe’s website.
I grew up with a Barbie doll. Not a toy—a mother. She was a model, raven-haired, green-eyed, statuesque, with unrealistically perfect proportions, but there they were. Like the doll, my mother had an extensive wardrobe; Mom’s even included a couple of mother-daughter outfits. Were they fetching? I don’t remember. I do remember gazing at the two of us dressed alike: one, a full-blown goddess, larger-than-life, a voluptuous Renoir; the other, a skinny, freckle-faced tadpole, an anonymous, unfinished pencil sketch. It was in the shifting of that gaze—Mom, me, me, Mom—that my comparing mind was born. As far as my appearance was concerned, I was undefined except in relation to another woman. Whereas my mother was full and round and complete, I was thin, angular, and inchoate. My mother’s hair was wavy and thick, always perfectly coiffed. Mine was straight and fine, my bangs always uneven. Clothes clung languidly to my mother’s curves like an exhausted lover. My clothes, like worn-out color forms, refused to stick to me; elastic waistbands were sewn into my skirts to keep them from falling down.
Though today I’m no Renoir, neither do I have trouble keeping my skirts up: It’s a 51-year-old body I live in. I’ve finally matured. But my comparing mind has not. It’s stubbornly stuck at 6, and if I were to follow its voice, I would feel once again like a tadpole among women. Though I’m full-grown, in my comparing mind I almost always come up short. So when it clamors to be heard, I listen as I would to a recalcitrant child, and then quiet it.
Here’s what I mean: As I’m walking down a crowded city street, a gorgeous young creature in her thirties, sleek and glossy as a black cat, crosses my path. “Bad luck for you!” cries my comparing mind. “You’ll never look like that again! You’re old and invisible!” The woman and I are stopped at a curb. Her beauty imbues her with a mild haughtiness. In a regal kind of way, she turns her head in my direction. I catch her eye.
“You,” I say, “are simply magnificent.”
The haughtiness vanishes instantly. She’s a bit taken aback, momentarily scrutinizes me for motive, sees none apparent, and then smiles her wide (magnificent) smile. “Why, thank you,” she says.
“It’s my pleasure to tell you,” I say, and it is. Because I not only remember how happy I have felt as the recipient of an authentic compliment, but now I have enjoyed the additional gratification of being able to give one. Though my comparing mind wants to nullify my power and kick me off the playing field because I can no longer compete, the power I have today is irrevocable. After years of passively accepting a definition of beauty other than my own, of striving to be a noticeable object, I’ve now assumed an active role, too: Appreciator of All Things Beautiful.
There are several things that recommend the role of appreciator. It’s easy to be very busy—at least as busy as one can be striving to be among the appreciated. I’ve discovered what the smartest men have always known: that women can be lovely in many ways—as many ways, it seems, as there are women. It’s easy to be very happy, noticing things to admire rather than looking only for ways to be admired. You know that feeling you get when you see a lush summer garden, abundantly green and fragrant and riotous with blossoms? Does it bother you that you’re not as beautiful as it is? No, of course not; it’s a garden. Its beauty has nothing to do with you, takes nothing away from yours. In fact, standing in the middle of a flourishing garden, filling your eyes with the deep and impossibly delicate colors, inhaling the odors, sweet and complex, you might feel more beautiful, more precious yourself, marveling at your own ability to perceive it all. That’s the way I feel about those women I used to think of as competitors: Their beauty is one more avenue for a rich enjoyment of the world.
But maybe most important as an appreciator, I’m setting my own standards. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? No, I won’t. I won’t compare you—or myself—to anything, not the weather, not our mothers, not that gorgeous creature crossing our paths. Because a thing of beauty needs no comparison, only an eye to behold it.
Author(s) || Valerie Monroe
Magazine || O, The Oprah Magazine
Article || Life Isn’t A Beauty Contest
Date || August 2002
I WANT YOU TO TAKE A MOMENT and think about something you did this week that was really exceptional– either because you contributed something and did it well or because you made someone else feel happy or encouraged. We all have these moments, but we rarely take the time to acknowledge the uniquely wonderful things we offer the world. We spend too much time comparing ourselves to others and too little time acknowledging our own abilities. It’s important to celebrate who we are and the amazing gifts we each have to offer, and not focus on how we compare with those around us. When we can do this, we’ll find that it’s a lot easier to acknowledge others, too.
It was 11:26 a.m. The doctor told my wife, Sue, to give it one more good push, and we’d see our first baby. Sue dug her fingertips into my hand, let out a primal scream, and our baby was born. Okay, there was a lot more to it, but you get the gist.
“It’s a boy!” proclaimed the doctor. “Would you like to cut the umbilical cord?”
“Um, no… go right ahead,” I responded.
In time, they wrapped our little boy in a blanket and handed him to Sue. “Hello, Matt. I’m your mom, and this is your dad.” Our life was changed forever.
We left the delivery room and wheeled down to our hospital room. Shortly after we settled in, Sue’s parents, Jerry and Julie, came to visit. As Julie held her first grandchild, I asked her the classic son-in-law question: “Hey, Julie, who do you think he looks like?”
“Oh, I think he looks just like Matt. Doesn’t he? Just like Matt.”
I got it.
Matt didn’t look like Sue, his grandparents or me–he was and is original in every sense. It was at that moment that I really began to acknowledge how unique we all are and how much each one of us has to offer.
Here’s one way to see this in action: Watch babies.
When they look into mirrors, babies have no idea they’re looking at themselves, at least not for the first eight months or so. Maybe they think they see a plant or a screen saver or another little kid. They’re clueless about the reflected image. Then, something happens around eight months, and a baby begins to realize that the image in the mirror is actually them.
All of a sudden, a lightbulb goes off. There’s a look of wonderment in their eyes. They love what they see! “Hey, that’s me!” They have a full-hearted moment of unconditional love. And what do they do? They lean forward, touch the mirror, and give their reflection a big kiss.
All of us kissed mirrors when we were babies… yes, all of us!
And when you kissed your reflection in the mirror, you didn’t care about your skin color or the shape of your eyes. Every day was a good hair day, and your hips were just fine, thank you. You didn’t care about your zip code, your country of origin, or your status. All you acknowledged was a beautiful child.
So, did you kiss the mirror this morning? I’ll bet you didn’t, and I’m not necessarily suggesting that you do (at least not in front of anyone.) If you’re like most people, you found your way to the bathroom, turned on the light, looked in the mirror, and thought, “You’d better go back to bed, my friend. You’re not done cooking yet.”
What changed between that baby who appreciates her reflection and the person who now looks into the mirror and only sees what’s missing or what’s wrong? What happened to the children we were in first grade, who were so excited to participate that we raised our hands and waved them frantically, saying, “Oh, please, call on me! Please, please, please, call on me!” and not necessarily because we knew the answer. Heck, we might not have been sure what the question even was. But we were so excited to learn and participate. What happened to that burning passion to live fully? And when did this person who counts the hours until the end of the day, can’t wait until Friday, and is slowly counting the years to retirement show up?
What happens to the childlike acceptance of self and others? When do we lose sight of our value? When do we forget how much we have to give? When do we become threatened by anyone who’s different? Those are heady questions, and the answers are complicated enough to require a Ph.D in psychology, I’m sure. I guess a lot of things happen to us that make us question our value, and comparison seems to be one of the main culprits.
Remember that as a baby, you didn’t think about whether you measured up to someone else or whether someone else measured up to you. The reflection of you in the mirror was more than enough to merit giving that reflection a big kiss.
Sharing, Not Comparing
Some comparisons start early on in life: the first day of school. As a student at Holy Spirit School, I settled back at my desk after lunch when my first-grade teacher, a wonderful Franciscan nun named Sister Olivia, said to us, “Children, it’s time to color.”
Cool! I had freaked out out on the math flash cards in the morning, but I knew how to color! Coloring was my thing! I reached inside the school supply bag that my mom had packed for me and pulled out a box of five brand-new, never-before-used jumbo crayons.
As number four in a family of five children, I’d always had junk-drawer crayons, and this was the very first time I’d ever opened a new box of my very own.
I lined the five crayons on the desk, thinking to myself, “I know this one, Sister. I love to color!”
The little girl sitting next to me reached inside her lather-bound, school-supply Gucci attaché case and pulled out a beautiful box of what looked like 5,000 crayons. It had a flip-top and a real sharpener in the back. It had a Hemi, for goodness sake.
It was the most beautiful box of crayons I’d ever seen, and the little girl was proud of them. She should have been: They were amazing. She had every color in the rainbow, including the extra special shiny colors of gold, silver and copper.
The little girl turned to me and announced, “Guess what! I have seventeen different shades of orange!”
I didn’t turn to her in the spirit of sharing and say, “Cool! Can I try one?” Instead, I glanced at her, glanced at my five crayons–red, yellow, blue, green, and purple–and though, “I don’t even have one orange!”
You see, the moment you start counting crayons, you just might come up short. The moment you realize you have less, you start to feel as if you are less and that maybe you deserve less. You start to act like less, and instead of sharing, you fill your heart with feelings of envy and jealousy.
Comparing means walking into a crowded room, looking around at the other people who are there, and thinking to yourself: “Well, maybe I’m not as good as that person, but at least I’m better than that person over there.” The moment you pull out a scale and try to determine your human value by how you look or don’t look, what you have or don’t have, or what you know or don’t know, you start playing a game of “not enough.” If you constantly compare, you’ll never be rich enough, tall enough, thin enough, or good enough to be truly happy. Someone else will always appear to have less, and this will cause you to inflate tour own self-importance or value. The next thing you know, you’re on a seesaw–up and down based on who’s standing next to you from one moment to the next.
Don’t get me wrong. I love crayons, I love stuff, and I agree that having stuff is fun. I also understand keeping score. I understand knowing where you stand in your accomplishments, and I understand the thrill of competition and wanting to be your best. But your true value has nothing to do with the number of crayons in your box. If you place your real value only on things like job titles, the brand of car you drive, vacation hot spots, clothing labels, or the “name” of the schools your children attend, you don’t come out ahead. It’s a bit like those fake houses on movie sets. The front of the house looks real, but behind it, there are no rooms. It’s just a facade with no substance inside.
So, let’s say something good happens to someone you know. Instead of acknowledging their success and being happy for them, you find yourself feeling bad or jealous. Hey, we’ve all had moments like that. When this happens, ask yourself: “What do I feel is missing in my life?” That’s where the jealousy comes from. It means you judge your value by how many crayons you have or don’t have. And that’s a losing battle. You can’t win, because no matter how many crayons you think you might have, Bill Gates and Oprah will always have more.
When we appreciate what we have and don’t calculate our worth as compared to anyone else, we’re ready to share more of ourselves with others. So, celebrate the successes and accomplishments of others. Share in their joy. When a friend or acquaintance earns an A on a test, gets accepted to a great college, gets the dream job, buys a new car, takes a cool vacation, gets married to a wonderful mate, has beautiful children… be happy for them.
Sharing means being a person who contributes daily. It means you contribute to other people’s success. It means leaving the campsite better than you found it. You provide service to your community. You contribute helpful ideas to your team. You give more than you take. You acknowledge others, honor what’s important to them, and connect with those around you. It means saying “Nice Bike.” It’s ironic, but when you’re more concerned with how much you give and less concerned about what you receive, you end up getting a lot more.
Develop yourself to the best of your ability, and acknowledge the wonderful things that have happened to you. When you take the time to honestly acknowledge your own accomplishments, large and small, your self-confidence and your self-worth will flourish–and it won’t have anything to do with how you compare to others.
In other words: Stop counting crayons and just draw pictures.
NICE BIKE, Baby Kissing the Mirror.
Author(s) || Mark Scharenbroich
Book || Nice Bike: Making Meaningful Connections on the Road of Life
Chapter || (04) Kissed Any Rearview Mirrors Lately?
Date || October 18th, 2010 ~ Not Sure