By Anna Ilona Mussmann
I know a woman who is so intelligent, and does such excellent work in her area of expertise, that others find her intimidating. She shares her opinions freely and in confident tones. She seems like a natural leader. “It’s easy for you!” her peers say. “I couldn’t do what you do.” Yet what many of us forget is that the inner drive behind unusual excellence is. . . . well, frankly, it is uncomfortable. For some, it resembles the proverbial bur beneath the saddle, and for others it is more like a bed of hot coals.
We see the accomplishments and strength more easily than the pain. We see the altar-guild leader to whom we can hand over any problem. She will organize meals for new moms, take the aged to their appointments, or talk to the weird homeless guy. She always stays late to scrub the church kitchen and restock the Styrofoam cups. We see the homeschool mom whose articulate children are well-behaved and neatly dressed, whose oldest child received early acceptance into Harvard, and whose second kid is a National Merit Scholar. It seems pretty clear that she must stay up until 3 a.m. to preview all of her children’s library books and to study the chemistry lesson for the next morning.
When we look at these women, we tend to feel admiration but also perhaps a smidge of defensiveness. We offer compliments that suggest that they are different from us, and that somehow, it must be easier for them to do these things than it would be for us. You must have a lot of patience, we say. You must have a lot of inner strength. No doubt these sisters of ours have grown in patience and strength through their labors. Yet often they became who they are not because of innate abilities, but because some kind of inner pressure has pushed them into it. We celebrate accomplishments in our culture, but sometimes we forget the personal cost of excellence.
This is not to say that anyone who is better at something than we are must be a bundle of psychological issues. There is often great joy in an intense pursuit of one’s talents. Nor do I mean to point out merely that excellence requires hard work. The thing is, being the sort of person who expends the amount of hard work required for excellence is often painful. The best writers are keenly aware of their own flaws. The best musicians hear every wrong note (I remember a story about an incredibly gifted conductor who committed suicide because he could never achieve a flawless orchestral performance).
People who do incredible things are rarely confident that they have done enough. They are unlikely to pat themselves on the back at the end of the day. Instead, their sense of what is “good enough” often leaves them with a feeling of failure. The woman I mentioned before (the one who intimidates others) struggles sometimes with fear, stress, a sense of inadequacy, and even guilt that she is not doing her job better. She is impressive, but it is not easy to be her.
When we fail to realize how hard it is to be each of us, we view each other unrealistically. It does not help that we seem to live in a defensive age. Take parenting as an example. Nowadays it is not enough to choose co-sleeping, breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, standard vaccination schedules, babywearing, 5-day pre-school, or homeschooling; instead, the practitioners often seem compelled to defend their choices with hyperbolic dismissal of parents who do the opposite (“You let your baby cry at night instead of co-sleeping? He’ll turn into a mass murder without human empathy!” “You co-sleep? Don’t you know your child will probably die of SIDS?”). It is easy to build habits of undermining empathy for our sisters by comparing them to ourselves, and, especially, in judging what we think we know of them (often through social media) instead of who they really are.
Surely part of the problem is our unspoken cultural obsession with the idea that certain qualities (especially beauty, youth, and success) are what provides human value. Even when we reject that lie with the conscious parts of our mind, it is hard to avoid its influence. We forget that God works through those who appear valueless and weak, and we struggle to feel special, beloved, and valuable. Such struggles can divide us from any of our friends, but perhaps especially from the ones whose accomplishments in one field or another are above average.
If we are to be better friends, we need both more self-forgetfulness and more self-confidence. However, to pursue those qualities as ends in themselves is to fall into the trap of eternally unsatisfying self-back-pats that our culture recommends (if self-love worked, pop stars wouldn’t need to keep telling us to do it). The truth is that those qualities are by-products of a right view of life, which is itself a byproduct of our own sanctification in Christ, which happens as a result of death. His death. His resurrection. His mercy on us. We pray to the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) to have mercy, and to help us forget ourselves. We pray that He will teach us to love each other. In this world, where we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), even seeing each other truly is hard. Yet we are all sisters together, all helpless sinners in need of God’s grace. The gift of each other’s friendship is one of the blessings that He gives us to make life a little easier and a great deal more fun. For that, let us thank God.
This post concludes our series about friendship. You can use the menu to review any parts of the series that you may have missed. It's good stuff!
Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.
Title Image: "Young Woman at a Window" by Jan Victors, 1640