"The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday." - Author Unknown
I sincerely believe that the greatest discredit we can do ourselves in life is to judge our own success, or progress, by comparing ourselves to those around us. Granted, looking at your neighbor for inspiration or encouragement can be extremely helpful in generating new ideas or learning lessons “the easy way.” However, measuring ourselves up against someone who probably did not begin their life on the same playing field, did not have the same resources, obstacles, or experiences as we did, can be detrimental to our self-esteem and our future progress.
I oftentimes forget the struggles that I’ve faced in my life, partly out of absentmindedness, and part purposefully. But it always brings me back to reality and helps to really put things into perspective for me when I am reminded of my humble, and oftentimes rough, beginnings. I was talking to my coworker today about skipping school and how the first time I’d done it I was in the fifth grade. He laughed; he honestly thought I was joking. He said that he genuinely didn't know what cutting school was in elementary school. My best friend and I simply watched cartoons that time in the fifth grade, and were promptly caught by my parents.
However, I went on to tell him about the next few times my friends and I cut school, in the sixth grade. We’re middle schoolers now, we thought, we’re big time, and surely we don’t need school! We wandered around the shopping center across from our east Baltimore middle school for the first few hours, but soon needed to take cover. If we were caught outside in the middle of the day, the police would surely round us up and call our parents. Luckily I was hanging with two of my girlfriends, Shakira* and Desiree, who had seventh and eighth grade boyfriends, respectively—“older boys” with lots of experience. They knew all the cool hangout spots where we surely wouldn't get caught.
An hour and almost a half-mile walk later, we found ourselves in one of the nearby apartment complexes. What are we doing here? Surely someone’s unemployed mother would peek out her window and see us. “Trust me,” Maurice, the oldest boy assured me, “I got us a spot.” We wandered around a few corners, seemingly aimlessly, as I began to wish I had gone to school. It was late fall and my hands were starting to get cold and I was beyond tired of walking, at least school was warm and had chairs. We climbed two flights of ragged stairs, and when we reached the top Davon, Shakira’s boyfriend, turned a knob to one of the apartment doors, pressed his body up against it, and popped it open.
When we walked inside, it was cold and abandoned. Light shown through all of the windows, and there was a giant whole in the ceiling in which rain or snow had long since forced its way through. I took a quick look around and spotted a mattress on the floor, some old chairs, a table, empty bottles and other trash. I was so exhausted from the walk that I plopped right down on the disgusting mattress, book bag and all. Before I knew it, Shakira and Davon had disappeared out of the room and two other boys, James and Lil’ Mike had shown up out of nowhere, carrying bags of snacks.
By this time it was after noon and my stomach was telling me stories, so when they offered me some chips and soda, I nearly hugged them! Distracted by the food and new strangers I didn’t even notice Maurice and Desiree sneak off. Lil’ Mike pulled out a plastic baggie full of leaves and a cigar. I had never done any drugs at this point in my life, but growing up in Baltimore learning about drugs is like learning your families’ names, it somehow just happens, so I immediately knew exactly what they were up to. As they rolled up their blunt, I sat quietly eating. I guess by the looks of me—I looked seven when I was 12, and 12 when I was 17—they assumed I didn’t smoke and didn’t offer. I secretly appreciated this; it wouldn’t be so easy for me in the future.
However kind these strangers were, after an hour or so the boys began to construct their second cigarette, and I began to worry about being locked in an abandoned apartment with them, not to mention where my friends had gone. And so I got up and left the apartment to look for them. I walked down the hallway of the building and heard a voice coming out of one of the other apartments. I knocked on the door, and heard someone say, “Oh shit!” I didn't want to scare them into thinking I was a parent or the police, so I yelled back, “it’s just me. Are you guys ready to go?” It was getting late and I couldn’t be late getting home from school, or my mom would know I was up to something.
I went and sat on the steps at the end of the hall, and a few minutes later Shakira and Davon came out of the apartment door that I had knocked on. I jumped up and wailed, “There you are! We should go soon or we’re going to be late.” Shakira went into another apartment, and a few minutes later came back out with Desiree and Maurice. I was confused as to why we all weren't hanging out together this whole time, and what they had been up to, but I knew better than to ask silly questions in front of the boys and make myself look even more inexperienced.
We all walked back to school together, and when we got to the school buses, Maurice, Davon, and the two other boys went their separate way. Shakira, Desiree and I continued walking and got on our bus. I immediately asked, “What were you two doing in there?!” They looked at each other and then at me and Shakira said, “Girl we were having sex with our men.” “Oh. Really?” was all I could manage. These girls were eleven and twelve, in the same grade as me! Were they already doing this? Was this normal? Should I be doing this too? A hundred questions raced through my mind.
On the way home Shakira filled me in on how she and Davon had been together a year now and that they had been having sex for over 6 months. “One hundred and forty two,” she said, “that’s how many times we've had sex. I count every time because it’s special and I want to keep track.” “One hundred and forty two?!” was all I could think. I hope I don’t have to catch up to that! It sounds impossible! I couldn't wait to get home and consult my best friend. Luckily my best friend at the time, in all her infinite twelve-year-old wisdom, assured me that I, in fact, did not have to have sex 142 times before leaving the seventh grade. Thanks, Ariel.
While relaying this story to my suburbia-raised, upper middle class coworker, his face twisted itself into a distorted array of disgusted, shocked and horrified expressions, stopping only to ask me a variety of questions, such as “Where were you raised? What school was this? Who are these people?” in a disturbed and unusually high-pitched voice, or to exclaim things such as “One hundred and forty two?!” I had to repeat a few parts to clarify and add detail, because at some points he genuinely didn't believe me. He said, “Had I skipped school in the seventh grade I’d have gone home and watched cartoons!” So fifth grade.
When sharing tidbits of my life like this with my current peers, I am oftentimes surprised at how shocked they are to hear my stories, sometimes saddened by the fact that their memories of these time periods in life are so much simpler and happier for them then they are for me, but mostly I am encouraged and proud. I’m proud of the things I've overcome, the good, bad, and ugly that has made me who I am, and the simple fact that their lives started out so much smoother and rosier than mine, and yet we have both made it to this very same place today, right on the same playing field.
When I measure my life and my success, I do it vertically. I look back at all the obstacles I've faced, all the trials and tribulations that I've overcome, and all of the positive experiences too, and thank God for where he has brought me to in my life today. I don’t measure my life horizontally comparing myself to the person sitting next to me, because they too have traveled their own path, overcome their own obstacles, and walked in shoes I can never fill. I don’t measure myself according to others. I use the only true measure of progress there is, I compare myself to who I was yesterday.
Happy mirror gazing! ;-)
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals involved.