My mother, who is also a writer, was recently assigned to write a magazine story about a Brooklyn-based artist, whose name she recognized. It turned out to be a distant cousin on her side of the family, whom I met twice as a child when my grandparents took us to visit.
She left a rather strong impression on me and a distinct memory of watching her back handspring across the lawn in her back yard. As if that wasn’t enough, she demonstrated effortless flipping on the gymnastics bar affixed to her bedroom doorway. I was rather entertained and grateful for the up close and personal display of my all-time favorite sport. I also felt quite inferior and somewhat depressed that I would never get there.
I could only do a back handspring with two spotters in gym class. Many of my friends had mastered the art of the back handspring and were moving on to more difficult tricks, like the forward tuck. I drooled over the great gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, and at the same time, knew I’d probably never even master a handstand. It just wasn’t my thing. I was a dancer and needed to focus on that.
So, my cousin struck me as some sort of superhuman with a talent for tossing her body into the air in ways that would surely end my young life. Soon after meeting her I began having recurring dreams about effortless flipping. Immediately upon waking I’d be sure that I could do it because I had just done it moments before on another plane of reality. Then I’d feel the thud of the actuality of all my limits.
It all came back the other day in a rush of envy and amazement as my mother talked about her unusual talent as an artist, her multiple degrees and the fact that she lived in Brooklyn, a virtual playground for creative types. But what made it so much worse was when she told me she was also born in 1969, a few months younger than I. When we met, I was sure she must be several years older to be able to do what she did.
This is one of my lessons for the week---which seem to fire in my direction like a machine gun of challenge, scrutiny and information---not to compare myself to others. I’ve learned this before somewhere along the line, probably in dance class, but the older I get the more important it becomes in my eternal battle with depression, anxiety and perfectionism.
My cousin and I have led completely different lives, though similar in many ways, because we are different people. The point is that life is not a contest. But I suppose I’m still suffering from an inferiority complex born long ago. I was the shortest girl in my class, always, and therefore consistently chosen last to be on any given team in gym class. If there had been a dance team (other than cheerleading where tumbling was required) or a singing team, or perhaps a writing team, I might have been chosen first.
We all have our own gifts and levels of achievement. Not everyone is meant to be the best this or the highest-ranked that. Better to celebrate our own talents and let other people inspire and motivate us with their accomplishments. So, what do you think I did after I heard about my cousin and what a wonderful artist she is? I wrote another piece for the magazine I now edit and felt grateful for my own talent. Then I kissed my children and thought about how many years I’ve focused on making sure they grow up to be loving, creative, peaceful people. Now that is a great accomplishment!