My young life was laced with splashes of light that came from having a best friend I loved. Her name was Julie, her nose dashed with freckles beneath bright, blue, happy eyes. We were salt and pepper, ham and eggs, so much alike in so many ways we could have finished each other’s sentences. I knew every scar on her legs, because I had been there for most of them.
In third grade we formed the Penguin Girls club and created our own song, “We are the happy, happy Penguin Girls. We strive for good and not for bad…”
One month we walked home backwards from church every week, just to see if we could do it without tripping. I don’t remember if that was just before or just after we made up our own secret language and passed notes back and forth that no one else could read. We graduated from that language, but we always seemed to have a way of talking so deeply together, it felt like secret language.
For awhile we had a fetish for climbing trees and saw the world from branch tops, sleeping out one time in a tree house and eating sack breakfasts our mothers had generously supplied. As we got older, we rode our bicycles past two boys’ houses we liked, who just happened to live next door to each other, pedalling faster as we passed, in case (oh horrors) they might look out and see us.
On the way to college we read passages of great literature aloud to each other, formed plans for the future, dreamed and talked and traveled and sometimes cried on each other’s shoulders, always still hoping to strive for good and not for bad.
She was the landscape of my soul, the one who understood. There was only just one little fissure in this idyll of youth and it was inside of me. Sometimes I was jealous of her, and sometimes that fissure flared to earthquake-size soul rifts. We were so much alike that it was easy to run a little inner chart of comparison, like the charts of colored lines you see on power points. Who is doing well? Who is popular? Who is accomplished? Who is noticed? Who is better?
It is embarrassing now to think that I cared about that, but such is the insecurity of youth, the vulnerability of our fragile souls, that I did. I noticed with some pain that everyone wanted her to run for vice-president of the junior class, and at the same time she was elected vice-president of the Pep Club. No one thought of me for these honors. I watched from my anonymous place on the bleachers as she and the other officers crossed the football field at each game to meet the officers from the other school. That looked elite, indeed. Then the boy that I had secretly liked for four years started dating her our high school senior year, and I wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”
Of course, that last paragraph is told through that teenage lens of self-pity. I could retell the story quite differently, because wonderful things happened to me, too, and life was rich and blessed, but sometimes I couldn’t see it because in that constant way that insecure souls might do, part of me was always silently, and I think without her notice, looking over my shoulder at her, comparing, trying to figure out if I was OK.
As Julie and I grew older, I knew that part of her heart was troubled about the Church. Her parents pulled against each other in matters of faith, with her father always urging her against the gospel. All those seeds came to terrible fruition in college when she started to say, “What if the gospel is good, but it just isn’t true?” By the time we were college seniors, there were more questions, followed by rapid weight loss and retreat. We were roommates but she didn’t have much to say to me anymore.
She was breaking, the strings being cut, a broken marionette splayed across the floor and I was helpless to stop the deterioration of her thought.
Finally one day, I got the word from her-she was dropping out of life as she had known it, including abandoning home and old friendships. She wanted to find truth, live authentically, a girl influenced by the “flower power” of the 60’s and a radical university professor whom she admired.
She couldn’t imagine being the all-American good girl any more. Within months she was living with a young man.
I tried to hold on to the friendship because she had been my anchor, my joy. I clutched at this friendship that had always mattered so much to me. She would have to undo me one finger at a time, if she wanted to lose me, but I finally gave up when she invited me to a party that turned out to be a drug gathering and taunted me before everyone for not participating. I left her apartment that night in tears, and she never called again.
I saw her only once more just before I was married, but I hardly recognized her. I couldn’t see Julie in her face anymore. Light had drained completely from her, nothing familiar looked out from blue eyes. The bone structure was the same; I knew it was Julie, but she was utterly gone. Five years later, rocking my child one night, I got a terrible call from my mother. Julie had put a gun in her mouth and committed suicide.
Oh my precious friend, my dear and precious friend. I have wept for you. For years you were in many dreams; no matter what I was doing in these night time excursions, I’d turn and you were there, still my friend, still supportive, now just quiet.
But I have wept, too, that I ever looked at my best friend with any sense of jealousy. I took it to the Lord and he and I worked for years to obliterate such tendencies from my being. I hope to forever leave behind me, like a discarded costume in a play I really acted in, but now can no longer relate to, any urge to look at others’ accomplishments or joys with a slightly jaded eye.
I don’t think she knew that I compared myself to her, that I was sometimes jealous when I cheered for her, but I did. I knew it-and like all of our weaknesses it was me who was most pained by it.
Many of us have known the unnecessary pain of this weakness, of playing a constant game of comparing ourselves to others. In some ways, we may excuse ourselves, thinking we are just trying to figure out who we are, and if we are worthwhile, if we have done well, if we are good enough. It is hard, after all, to arrive on earth with amnesia, all things forgotten from our premortal past, including our very identity, not knowing who we are and what we can do. We look around to get a sense of that. Am I strong or weak? Am I important?
Am I important? Now there’s a killing question. That’s because at its root is enmity, wondering am I more important than you? Am I special? Have I an impressive resume? Have I distinguished myself from my fellows-all the rest of you who do not matter as much as me?
In Mormondom, these questions have a special twist. Did I get a noteworthy calling? Have I made a mark in the kingdom? Are my children a credit to my parenting? How many wince inside, looking at their own hurting child, when another says, “Five children, five temple marriages.” We should cheer for them, not die a thousand deaths.
I call this comparison, tinged with jealousy, the “great and noble syndrome”, because, of course, Abraham was shown the intelligences and told that some were great and noble. How easy to warp a scripture into a weakness. “Was it I?” “Was it I”, we may ask in a chorus of puny voices, as if eternity were a competition. How can I, in fact, demonstrate my greatness and nobility?
The secular version of this I saw on a t-shirt my son likes to wear in jest, quoting from a character in a movie. It says, “I’m kind of a big deal.” Everyone in this movie knew that the character who said this was a fool and a fop.
It is a rotting kind of enmity, though sometimes invisible to us as the enmity that it is, when we look at others as competitors, as if there’s only so much prize to go around. That is the view of a social Darwinist, grabbing the prize as if your life depended on it because of the scarcity principle. “If you don’t get yours, there won’t be enough.” How amazing to have a God who, instead, promises all he has to all his children who truly seek him.
This sort of enmity refuses to see others in their wholeness, in their humanity and need, but instead eyes with suspicion and jealousy their strengths. Perhaps people will like or admire them better than us, the thought wafts insidiously through our heads. Perhaps they will be viewed as important, and I as a slug, nearly invisible.
This thought may come to dominate our relationship. We are frustrated by what they are and exaggerate what we are not. Why would we ever think that another’s joy or excellence would in any way subtract from us?
This tendency can be made worse when we share similar traits or circumstances with someone. It is the siblings in a family who compare themselves and their relative importance. It is the members of a ward who quietly assume that there is a hierarachy of importance among themselves.
We do not need to envy another’s strengths, but take full opportunity to learn from them. Let them be our teachers, our friends. Life here is a school, and we are the students. It is not a performance, looking for stars.
If we define ourselves by our place in some imagined hierarchy, we look at others with envy or disdain. If we are seeking to somehow be set up as special, we are, by definition, determining that others are less special, less important.
It is enmity to insist that we are always right, that our idea is superior, that we are the ones who must be especially regarded and accounted for.
It is enmity to treat others as if their purpose in our lives was mainly to be our audience, that our major effort is to polish our ever-important self-image before them. That is an exhausting task, never-ending and all-absorbing. If our sense of self is always at risk, there seems to be no urgency so great that it can divert our attention from seeking our own. “Did you notice me?” “Did you notice me now?” “Do I look good enough?” “Am I smart and funny?”
It demeans and dehumanizes people to treat them as your audience. It says you don’t exist except to notice me. It says the only way you count is as my fan.
Hugh Nibley points out that of all the people that Alma encountered in his life, including the wicked people of Ammonihah who burned the believers, no one was more shocking to him than the Zoramites. These were the well-scrubbed, well-dressed, church attending, law-abiding folks, but he calls them “wicked” and “perverse” and his heart was “grieved” when he saw them.
What so shocked Alma, who you would think had already seen it all? It was their relentless need to shine their self-images, their overweening sense of superiority, their arrogance and self-absorption, their need to be the top of a pecking order. How they describe themselves may sound eerily familiar.
They said of God, “Thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell”. They bragged, “we are a chosen and holy people” yet after their meetings “returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they assembled themselves together again.” “Their hearts were set upon gold, and upon silver, and upon all manner of fine goods”, because, after all, they did have to dress for success, watch out for number one, and have every trapping of wealth as a mark of how really fine they were. (Alma 31: 17, 23, 24)
The Zoramites probably had glowing resumes while they cast the poor from their synagogues and their presence as unworthy, not nearly so cool as they. They had certainly decided who was popular and who not, who was worthy of notice and who simply had to accept their lot as less acceptable.
This is not to suggest that we not seek to be excellent. Of course the Lord wants us to strive with all of our hearts to develop our talents, intellect and sensibilities, but not for the purpose of arising like a little star, noticed by our fellows; it is for the purpose of serving them and finding him. Our eye needs to be focused to his glory, not ours.
The Lord does not want us to be perpetual adolescents, always looking over our shoulders to measure who we are against others. This earth experience is an invitation to grow up.
Enmity may be an invisible weakness to us.
We may think we carry none toward our fellow travellers in this journey called mortality, but if we cannot see them because our own needy, ever-clamouring Self is blocking the view, then we are invited to change.
I hope one day to hug my Julie. Neither one of us will still have the scars on our legs we earned on barbed wire fences and in trips and falls, but perhaps neither will we have any scars in our souls, thanks to the atonement of our Savior. I believe she will be mended and I will cheer with a whole heart at her triumphs that I hope have come since I saw her last. I will thank her for her kindness in my youth, for the trees we climbed to get a view, for the splashes of sunlight I can still feel in my soul where she was.