“You are the bestest Mom ever. You are better than Jack’s mom, Kyle’s mom and Timothy’s Mom,” Patrick announced to me recently.
“Thank you, Son. You’re the best, too.”
“Am I the bestest of Jack? What about Kyle and Timothy?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I hesitated a minute and he said, “Okay, I’m not the best.”
“Yes, you are the best, Patrick,” I assured him. “You really are.”
Despite my words of affirmation, I left the conversation with my five-year-old son very unsettled. To me, Patrick is the best kid in the whole world. But, do I want him to go around comparing himself to others in order to feel good? It’s a simple question he asked but it reflects a much deeper issue. In his Kindergarten mind he’s wondering–“Am I good enough? Am I as good as Jack or Tim or any other kid that walks the face of this planet? Do you think I’m good enough, Mom? Does Dad?” In his seemingly unimportant comparison of himself against his friends, Patrick is seeking to prove his worthiness, his dignity. Like all members of the human race do at various times, he’s mistakenly looking to others (and eventually maybe to things) to discover his value.
Once a priest shared how the altar boys in his sacristy one up each other. “Well, I’m older than you. But I have bigger feet. Yeah, but I’m taller.” Even at such young ages, the boys, acting from deep wounds within themselves, attempt to demonstrate self-importance. They are already beginning a quest to fill themselves with things of empty value (height, weight, size, etc) instead of the value that they have simply because they are children of God. This quest becomes more complicated and elaborate as the boys grow—as they look to prestigious colleges, cars, nice houses, jobs, looks, exercise and other worldly realities to prove their worth.
When I was in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, a potential benefactor visited the program in which I was enrolled. The guy was worth billions. He was wealthier than anyone I had and will ever meet again. The administrators of the school, hoping to secure a sizable donation, threw a bonafide dog and pony show for him. At one point during his visit, all the students were gathered into a large auditorium to welcome him and his family and listen to him speak.
As he took the stage and began, I was struck by how someone with as much power and money as he possessed could look so completely lost, so hopeless. Even as a young graduate student, I could see this guy’s soul waning and weeping for lack of Christ.
“I have more money than I know what to do with,” he started. “My kids and the future generations of my family will never have to worry about finances. I have a yacht, homes on every coast and my own personal jet. I own many companies, most of them ones I’ve started. Yet, I’m still not happy. I heard about you ‘do-gooders’ and thought ‘Well, I’ve tried everything else, maybe these people are on to something.’ So, that’s why I’m here. To see what you’ve got, to see what you are about.”
When he finished speaking and took his seat, the Vice President of the University approached the podium and looked the man in the eye. “One thing you’ll see we have here,” the priest said, “is Christ in the Eucharist. He may be what you’re looking for.”
I don’t know what happened with that man but I’ve never forgotten him. To me, he epitomizes a vainglorious search for money, power, prestige, and pleasure that, at the end of the day, leaves one completely empty and still searching.
Oh, to what depths of misery does the quest for material things and self-worth lead! For no matter how hard we work, no matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we pretend, there is always someone else prettier, smarter, richer, skinnier, holier, kinder, and just plain “better” than us. We spend all our time perfecting ourselves in these areas yet we still aren’t good enough. What does that mean for our value, for our worth as a person, when we end up less than someone else?
The conclusion is obvious. It means we are no good—that I am no good. Or at least, I’m not good enough.
That is a lie. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
“Of all visible creatures man…is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake”, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.
…Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. ”
Patrick, the altar boys, the powerful professionals, and even the stay at home moms of the world aren’t good because they are better than others, or because they are taller, prettier, or possess the best jobs or the nicest homes. They are good because they are created in the image of God. Their very being reflects divine nature and that, in and of itself, makes them very good! Not just good—it makes them the best!
After reflecting on these things, I approached Patrick again as he was playing with a box of toys in his room.
“Patrick, remember when you asked me if you were better than Jack?”
“Yes,” he replied looking at me with those smiley eyes of his.
“Do you want to know what really makes you the best?” (Editor’s note: Here’s where I thought we were going to have some deep theological discussion on how we, as human beings, are created in the image and likeness of God and are, therefore, fundamentally good.)
Reaching into his box, Patrick pulled out a picture of Jesus. “He makes me the best!”
It seems he wasn’t that off course after all.
Copyright 2009 Colleen Duggan