Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Fighting “The Spirit of Envy” at Christmas

This post was going to be something totally different when I started writing about it originally. It was going to be a semi-humorous jab at the extension that has been attached to just about every Christmas card I have received in the past twenty years, something I have grown to call “the brag letter”. Anyone who has received a Christmas card knows what this is, it’s the recap of all of the things the family has done over the year. I had intended to poke a little fun and give others a hard time for their letters… except that, as I started to write about it, I stopped and took a hard look at my own motivations for doing so. In other words, “what is it about these letters that gets under my skin?”… and I discovered a few things about myself as I was doing it.

The classic "Brag Letter" mostly follows a format where there are three areas discussed; how great the kids are doing and the amazing things they are doing, what kind of huge promotion that dad or mom got at work (or some award that was received), and some fabulous trip, vacation or amazing undertaking or act of service that was performed. Of course, not all letters look like this, and some families actually poke fun and take some entertaining liberties with the “brag letter”. One family that I know, who truthfully has the ways and means to “really” do up a doozy of a brag letter if they wanted to, always send one out that makes it sound like they are living like “Hillbillies somewhere in the holler” and it cracks me up every time I see it. Another family sent one this year that, while it had the hallmarks of "great things", also made a point to include an amusing or, shall I say, “less than perfectly glowing” report about various things. Honestly, I appreciated this greatly, and I enjoyed this letter more than any other I’ve received for many years. So what is it about these letters that get to me, and more importantly… WHY do they get to me?!

Ive determined that. first, it makes me wonder if somehow I’m short changing my kids, because “my” letters, were I to write one, don’t include stories of my kids doing amazing things and achieving great and stratospheric and unimaginable heights… and yet, as I look at my own children and the things that they have been doing, to many, their achievements are seen as somewhat special and groundbreaking. For instance, I take it for granted that my son is almost an Eagle Scout at twelve years old… well, why wouldn’t he be, with his Dad as the Scoutmaster and one who intimately knows the ins and outs of Scouting and how to maximize the efforts needed? Plus, with his already having had five years cub scout tenure and now two years boy scout tenure, it’s like breathing to us, it is second nature… yet to others, the idea of a boy being just twelve and so very close to becoming an Eagle Scout is considered phenomenal. Likewise, I'm not sure how many girls ages 8 and 10 become super knowledgeable about Native American Dance performance, especially when they are not Native American to begin with, and more to the point go out and perform for others. In this, I started to realize that my kids do a lot of things that would be considered special by others, and that I’m just as guilty of “bragging” on them as anyone else.

The second thing I've noticed is that there tends to be an undercurrent of "implied success"; being made partner in a firm, becoming Vice President of a company, some award or recognition in their professional life… you rarely see someone say “Dad got laid off this year”, "Mom got downsized”, "Junior is holding on by the skin of his teeth to not fail Trigonometry" or "Dad just plodded along doing what he's always done". I’m 40, and I’m an Engineer. Not a Director, not a VP, just an everyday Engineer, and I've been one now for seventeen years, and enjoy being one. It's what I do, and I'm cool with that. At times, though, I've come to feel as though I’ve somehow failed or underachieved. Yet at times like this, I can just as easily look back to this past year and see a number of areas where I have done some special things; some of which have to do with my professional life, and many others having to do with Scouting (which is, arguably, my second "full-time occupation", according to many who know me :) ). 2008 saw me complete my Wood Badge ticket items and receive my beads, as well as be asked to participate as one of the teachers in the upcoming course for 2009. This year saw me become the fully fledged Scoutmaster for our growing Boy Scout Troop, and culminated with two Wards in San Francisco having their Scouting programs folded into ours, with me ultimately leading them and directing them in their Wards while they pursue their advancements. In short, the leadership of the Stake has entrusted me with being the center of the Stake’s Scouting program for three of our six Wards. The Order of the Arrow Dance Team has grown from a small endeavor to one of the most visible faces of the Lodge in the Council and in the community, with requests from schools and even a foregn embassy to have our little troup perform. I’ve come to realize that I have met a level of success in a beloved arena, mainly because it’s the work that I feel truly defines me (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my work as an Engineer, but if I have to choose between having one marker on my tombstone over the other as what defines me as a person, I’d much rather be known to history as “The Scoutmaster” :) ).

The third one almost always comes across regarding purchases, or trips, or other events that are described in a manner that says “we are so wealthy and it is so great!” This is the one that I find myself feeling most ashamed of reacting to… especially since many of the families I find myself recoiling towards these mentions, are the same ones that, a decade and a half ago, could barely rub two nickels together because they were struggling so mightily to get through various schooling programs, whether they be medicine, law, business, dentistry, etc. During this period of time, Christina and I were the ones living very well with two incomes and an infusion of regular stock options from where I was working. I’m sure that we looked like the “well-off ones” to them back then, and others perhaps looked longingly at us and what we were able to do. I also have to remind myself that we made very specific goals and plans where we decided there were things that we wanted to do, both for ourselves and our children. We decided that we would make do on just one income. We decided that Christina would be a full time mom while our children were growing up. We decided we would be aggressive about saving for retirement and our children’s college savings. We vowed that we would live our lives debt free. Our lives and the things that we do (and just as often don’t do) have grown out of that discipline, and slowly but surely, we are starting to reap the benefits of that. That could likewise be something to put into a “brag letter”.

Thus, I am ending this post today with the admission that I am a total hypocrite… I come down on a practice that, in many ways, is exactly what I do right here in this blog. My kids are special and fantastic, our life is blessed extraordinarily, and I and my family have achieved a unique level of success and security that, perhaps, some of my friends don’t have. In short, I’ve realized that my attitude about Christmas letters is little more than a “Spirit of Envy” that blinds me to the fact that, as Montgomery Gentry put it, “I look around at what everyone has, and I forget about all I’ve got!” What’s more, I realize that any success I have is tempered by the fact that a loving Heavenly Father expects me to *do something* with that success. As I’ve quoted before, and will do so again (somewhat paraphrased and modified for today)… “One hundred years from now, it will not matter to anyone, least of all my Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ, what car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, or how much money I had in the bank, but the world may well be a better place because I was important in the life of a child”. In my world view, if I can be judged by that, and if I can be found weighing in on a positive balance, that would be the ultimate “brag letter” from me. I hope to someday get a chance to write that one and I hope some of you will be around to read it when I finally have :).


SevenVillageIdiarts said...

This was a very honest and fun post. . . And I loved reading what you would have written about each child (and yourself and Christina) HAD you written a letter!! I hope you reacted favorably towards our letter when it came, ha, ha. . . Damian thinks the letters are dumb and doesn't ever read the ones I write, but I love getting them from our friends and enjoy sending them. I think this year may be my last because I work so hard to post on the blog and it's so expensive to send the letters . . . so enjoy/hate it while it lasts!!

Michael Larsen said...

Sarah, your letter was very cute, and I'm glad you sent it. I'm also glad you sent the picture I liked the best, too (LOL!)