The Thief of Joy
"Comparison is the thief of joy" - Theodore Roosevelt
Comparing ourselves to other people is something that everyone does. In this world of social media it's sort of impossible not to.
We do it when we feel bad about ourselves: “So-and-so has had X amount of success and I have only had Y amount of success and we are the same age. WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!?” or “By the age of 22 Jennifer Lawrence had several movie franchises and an Academy Award… All I had at 22 was a restaurant job, a broken heart, and a severe frozen yogurt addiction.” Not that I’m speaking from experience of course.
We do it to motivate ourselves: “I want to BE [insert successful mogul of your choice here], and when they were my age they had already achieved X,Y, and Z so I better get to work!” or “I want to be on Broadway, but Kelli O’Hara just put the entire world to shame by emerging naked from a bathtub onstage in “Bridges of Madison County: The Musical” like Venus from her shell in Botticelli’s painting so I better get my ass to the gym STAT!”. Not that I’m speaking from experience of course.
We even do it when we feel good about ourselves: “Sure, I may not have reached X level of success, but reaching Y level of success is more than I can say for so-and-so, which means I’m doing pretty well!” or “I mean I may not have an Oscar, but at least I have medical insurance which is a lot more than I can say for MOST of my friends in this city”. And don’t start in on that “Who needs medical insurance?” bit… YOU NEED MEDICAL INSURANCE!
Anyway… I’m going to start talking about me now (as if I wasn’t already, who am I kidding?). My whole childhood, as most daughters of strong, beautiful southern women can attest to, I compared myself to my mother. I wanted to be her, and I looked at her life as what my life, if I was a good girl, could be. Let me paint the picture for you.
As a freshman at The University of Mississippi, my mother pledged the Chi-Omega sorority. My father was her very first date in college, and needless to say it stuck. Mid way through her freshman year she was selected by her sorority sisters to compete in The Miss University Pageant. She wasn’t a pageant girl by any means but she was gorgeous and had a killer voice, so she borrowed a gown and a swimsuit and won the whole thing. She was on her way to Miss Mississippi. Now it became about just getting her into the Top 10… “Miss University ALWAYS makes the Top 10”. She won that whole damn thing too! She was overlooked at Miss America, I believe, because she was so young, but as a woman who has ALWAYS been very sure of herself, she moved on. Here she is pictured toward the end of her sophomore year, the reigning Miss Mississippi, posing at Roanoke (William Faulkner’s home) for the Pike Fraternity “Beauties” calendar. She was June. I mean… just look at her! The HAIR!
So this begs a question… WHAT happened to me?
I moved in to my freshman dorm at NYU and one of the RA’s (resident assistant) was wearing a t-shirt that read “Ask me about GREEK LIFE!” This excited my mother who walked right up and asked if they had a Chi-Omega chapter. No. “How about Tri-Delta?” No. “DG?” I believe at this point the RA, with ALL the vocal fry she could muster, said “Ummmm… we kind of make up our own sororities here.” So that was a no go. Next is simple… I didn’t go on a single date in college let ALONE meet my future husband/father of my children. I quickly realized that I had a rather unrealistic expectation in that regard.
And as for what I was doing MY sophomore year in college – I had just made my debut with The Southern Debutante Assembly but back in New York was playing a lesbian stripper named Madeline True in Michael John LaChiusa’s musical “The Wild Party”, based on an epic poem of the same name set in 1920’s New York. The musical plays in real time and portrays one wild night where drugs are taken, gin is drunk, and an orgy ensues. As you can imagine my mother and father were THRILLED, but they came to support me anyway. In true Debutante form though, I was the only member of the cast not to get naked, thank you very much.
I'd say those are some pretty great accomplishments for a 19 year old, but I still wasn't happy and I couldn't figure out why. Hindsight is always 20/20, but now I see clearly that I couldn't be proud of the things I had accomplished because they weren't things on my checklist, the checklist I had made for my life based on my mother. Comparison was the thief of my joy. I had spent so many years comparing myself to her that even as I began to forge my own path there was part of me that still clung to the life I was "supposed" to have. It took me a long time to accept the old adage: "When we plans, God laughs."
So did things turn out the way I had planned? Have I lived the young adult life that I always thought I would? No. But I realize now that I’m no worse for wear. I wouldn’t change the college experience I had here in New York for the world. It helped shaped me into the woman I am today. Sometimes I still do compare myself to my mother, and wonder what if I HAD gone to Ole Miss. Would everything have been better? Would things have been easier? No, because her journey was never meant to be my journey. Sorority life wouldn’t have suited me, because it would have conflicted with the rehearsals and performances that would have been so important to my theater degree. I certainly never had the body for pageants or “The Beauties”, so I wouldn’t have taken that road either. And as for the man situation – as nice as I sometimes think it would be to not have to worry about that part of my life... to at least have THAT figured out… I know that everything happens in its time, or rather in His time. I know it’s only Thursday so some of you might not be ready for me to take you to church just yet, but one of my most favorite Bible verses is:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” - Jeremiah 29:11
No matter how much we compare ourselves to others, at the end of the day our journey will never be their journey, and we cannot allow our inclination to compare those journeys to steal our joy. Each of our journeys are uniquely our own, and it is in the infuriatingly unsure moments that we truly grow.
In the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I remember a conversation I had with the EXTRAORDINARY Phylicia Rashad backstage at “Bernarda Alba”, another Michael John LaChiusa musical I would do later in college. It was spring break of my junior year in high school and my mother had brought me to New York for our annual trip to see shows. Phylicia had been a long time friend, both as the sister of my godmother Debbie Allen as well as through my father’s involvement with “The Cosby Show” during his career as a television executive. She knew that I was an aspiring actress and asked what I was working on. It just so happened we were doing “Into the Woods” at my school that spring, a musical she had done on Broadway herself (she replaced Bernadette Peters as The Witch in the original production). The Witch has always been a dream role of mine but because of some high school politics it went to a senior instead. I was cast as The Baker’s Wife. Now I love the role of the Baker’s Wife… my mother had played it regionally before I was born, and it was the Tony award-winning role after all (thank you Joanna Gleason), a fact Phylicia reminded me of when I mentioned part of me wished I were getting to play her role. See I was struggling with The Baker’s Wife vocally and felt insecure about my performance (there’s that word again). But Phylicia took one look at me and said, “Listen to me. What is meant to be…” and I interrupted her like the foolish child I was (WHO INTURRUPTS PHYLICIA RASHAD?!?!) and finished her thought: “… will be, I know.” She replied simply, “No.” And with a look that cut right through to my soul she said, “What is meant to be… already IS.” Then she hugged me, said “You’re gonna be just fine, baby”, and went back to prepare for her Saturday evening performance. I have applied that line to every aspect of my life since, and it applies to The Journey too.
“What is meant to be already is.”
We just have to believe it friends. And if there is ONE PERSON on this planet you should/can believe, it’s Clair Huxtable. I mean, would this face lie?
I didn’t think so.
With Grace and Good Humor,