Second Best

3:51 AM

Mothers tell their children how special and unique they are. When you're seven, you're quite certain the world can't get along without you. The future will splinter into a thousand pieces if you are not there to employ your talents.

Perhaps I was the only one who thought so. I considered myself the best and brightest in many diverse areas. And no, I didn't stop believing it at age seven. I believed it until I walked onto Hillsdale's campus. Eighteen years thinking I was pretty much the best at whatever I put my mind to. Eighteen years of coming out on top.

Well, that's not entirely true. There were those embarrassing episodes when I misspelled allocate during the regional spelling bee and landed with a thunk in third place at the state speech contest and got second in the short story contest. There were even a few times when I got rejection letters from magazines who didn't appreciate my philosophical children's stories about cats and Jesus. Shoot, there were times when people outright ignored me. Someone even criticized my heretofore perfect piano playing. Said it sounded clunky. I muttered something about not knowing the song very well and avoided that awful instrument for a long while afterward. 

Within my little group at home, I got the starring roles in the musical, played piano like nobody's business and made the best speeches this side of the county. Abroad, I was second best. If even. 

It got to me right where the selfishness brews thick and green. For the longest time -- for forever, actually -- I got jealous of anybody who might come close to eclipsing my glory. During piano recitals or plays, I would constantly measure myself to the performer: "Oh, goodness, I wouldn't say it like that -- I can play that piece too -- oh, NO, I'm not as good as she is!" I recognized this in myself. I hated this in myself. I couldn't enjoy anything anybody else did because it made me feel inferior. It made me insecure. It made me selfish, bitter and bright green with envy.

And don't get me started on writing. I was a veritable snob when it came to evaluating others' writing. I couldn't stand to see someone turn words better than I could. I didn't think other people deserved such talent. It was mine and mine alone. I was the precocious writer -- I was the one who would wow the crowds -- I could handle the celebrity status all by my lonesome, thank you very much. 

It was awful.

And then came college. Ouch. Not only was I not first and best at everything -- I didn't even show up on the radar. I got cast as a nameless chorus member in my first college play. The girls next to me in choir sang like angels compared to me. All these geniuses walked around campus like understanding philosophy was something they'd been doing since their first diaper. 

Sometime between day one of college and the first voice recital I attended that semester, something changed. For the first time ever, I didn't compare myself to the singers. I beamed because they sang beautifully. I knew they sang better than I did -- and it shocked me to admit it, but I didn't care. Being second-best didn't bother me one bit. Same with the piano recital and all the student essays I edited and the second play of the semester -- I loved how great these students were at what they did, most of them far beyond me in skill. But I was glad they were better than I was -- more enjoyment for me to sit back in my chair and enjoy the show. 

It puzzled me how I went from the Bitter, Envious Girl to one enraptured by my friends' superb talents. I'm still puzzling over it. Maybe it had something to do with being stripped of all previous accolades. My first English paper came back a B-. (People, I danced for sheer joy over that B-. I slaved for that B-.) Come to think of it, my first paper ever written got torn apart by the valedictorian of the school who forgot to glow over my "amazing writing skills." I had to ask people for help with things I previously prided myself on -- understanding literature, writing essays, stuff like that. I went head-to-head with students and professors who were smarter than I was and had to admit that I was not as smart nor as talented as everybody at school.

I accepted that. I also accepted what I was good at. My tough English prof gave me back that B- paper with an encouraging note: he thought I was a good writer and he was cheering for me. The star of the school play told me she loved how I played my nameless character. A girl next to me told me I sang beautifully. Those compliments meant the world to me.

Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I know what changed. Going to school taught me that beauty and truth were to be pursued above all else -- whether that beauty and truth came from something I did or someone else did. It wasn't really about the singer or writer or whatever. It wasn't about individual talents at all. I could rejoice in a well-written paper or gorgeous voice because it was well-written or gorgeous. 

I think that's what humility truly is -- not dissing one's talents in order to look humble but forgetting the people behind the truth and beauty altogether. There is so much talent and beauty and awesomeness in all sorts of people -- and I'm so glad my talents don't define the standard of excellence. I love how people are better at other things than I am. I get lots of help and encouragement and the chance to, like them, create something beautiful.

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2 impressions

  1. Oh yes! I know how that feels.

    I often tell myself that I'm just not good at anything, because I'm not better than so-and-so. It's sad really.

    I'm not even in college.

    Thanks for this post, it's really helpful! :)

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  2. Oh. Wow, Bailey... this pretty much just hit really hard. I've been struggling with this exact mindset for awhile now, to be honest (I may have already told you this -- not sure). I'm trying to learn to be happy about other people's talents instead of being jealous and frustrated that they aren't my own. Ugh ugh ugh. #convicted

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