On Comparison

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George Carlin had a routine about how anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac and anyone who drives slower is an idiot.

“It’s surprising,” the comic mused, “we get anywhere at all with all these maniacs and idiots on the road.”

I’m thinking about with whom we compare ourselves.

Our delight with our abilities depends on to whom we compare ourselves.

(And on our ability to take in compliments, but I’m mainly going with the former.)

***

A comment from a recent donor:

  • Thank you for another year of compassion, challenge and unfettered realness. Your words and writing lift me when I am feeling rather flawed and weaving towards a hint of the negative. Your posts gently pull me back in the direction I want to be. I wish I could sit down and write effortlessly like you.

-A.K.

I am thankful.

However, I don’t write effortlessly.

Because what you are reading is the result of about six hours of work — plus an editor who fixes all the grammatical errors you don’t see.

Also, be aware that I’ve been writing 40 articles a year for 10 years. I better be somewhat good at it.

Effortlessly?

Only looks that way from the outside.

***

I am newly moved to Jerusalem. Fall of 1993, my first year of rabbinical school.

My childhood best buddy, Erik, flew in from Amsterdam to visit me for a long weekend. We are in a shirut—an Israeli passenger-van-taxi on the way to a hospital where we will go around, bed to bed, wishing people a Refua Shelema—a “full healing.” It’s something rabbinical students (and their visiting friend) do to practice Hebrew (or because they are game for whatever it is).

My Hebrew isn’t so good. I have only just learned how to conjugate verbs into the past tense. So, the conversations I have with people to wish them well are quite strained and awkward. Fortunately, I have memorized the phrase Nes Katan Yihi-eh Po—“a tiny miracle will happen here”—and make up for my lack of language skills with a few magic tricks.

After about forty-five minutes of this, we leave and stop at a nearby supermarket. I ask a worker, Slicha, afo ha’soda—“Excuse me, where is the soda?”

Erik, ever supportive, mentions, “You certainly speak Hebrew pretty well.”

If only from his vantage point.

***

I started French horn about two and a half years ago.

It’s hard.

(I didn’t know before I started lessons that its difficulty level is Everest. On this peculiar brass instrument, one can put down the fingering for an A and play a Bb. Or, a C. I’ve even accidentally made an F when trying for an A.)

About six months ago, I told Kim, my ebullient teacher—“I think I’m now an intermediate.”

She laughed, “Brian, anything you want. Sure, you are now intermediate.”

Then, last Sunday, Kim invited me to her house to play Christmas carols with her and six other horn players. All the other players were much better. Much, much better.

“Kim,” I told her afterwards, “I am officially downgrading my level to beginner intermediate.”

***

I text a friend who has taken up embroidery on canvas. She sent me an image of her most recent work: a blue and white lighthouse and beach scene.

“You are getting really good at this,” I write.

She writes back, “I’m alright,” then “thanks,” then “I just like doing it.”

Compliments are hard to take in.

We don’t want to appear as braggarts.

***

I saw a meme of a poster, lime green with white words: “There is a past version of yourself ridiculously proud of who you are today.”

See if you can take that compliment in.

My friend Emily recently taught me: “When you get a compliment, swallow so that you know you are taking it in.”

There is a past version of yourself ridiculously proud of who you are today.

Gulp.

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