I was eight years old when I learned that I could run. Having recently changed schools I was not keeping up in class and had only a few friends. I spent many recesses inside staring in bewilderment at the incomplete homework on my desk, not knowing what I was supposed to do and wondering why all the other kids were so much better at it than I was. It seemed unfair. I nearly failed grade three and I wonder if the only reason I passed was so that my teacher could put an end to her own bewilderment. I felt isolated and unsatisfactory; a word that littered the pages of my report cards, and perpetuated my feelings of inferiority. I wondered why I wasn’t better.
Michael, one of my only friends, joined the running club that spring, and I didn’t want to be left out, so I also joined. He quit after the first week, but I soon discovered an aptitude for endurance that set me apart in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and in the following years I continued to run, becoming stronger and faster, until, by the time I was in high school, I was training with the best runners in the province. I became known by my peers for my ability to run, and to run better than anyone in our school, and better than most in the city. But after competing provincially, and later nationally, it became increasingly clear that mere potential was not enough. If I wanted to continue being better I would need to be more focused, more disciplined and more driven. I tried for a while, developing a strict regimen of training and diet, racing whenever I could, and devoting most of my attention to my development as a runner, until eventually, intimidated by my own expectations, and placated by a genuine understanding of the meaninglessness of these feats, I quit. I continued to run but abandoned any notions of athletic accomplishment as a path to personal betterment. I admitted to myself my deeper concerns and regarded the ways I felt more truly deficient. I began to question how I could become better not as an athlete, but as a person.
I met a friend this week and sat with him for a while. We talked of his life and mine, of the things that rest and move in our minds, and I was struck by the remembrance that there are better men than me. I do not know his faults to the extent that I know mine, but I see evidence of his virtue and am filled with admiration. He is a good man, and it breaks my heart at times to know how I have failed to be more like him and the other men I’ve come to admire. Already at the age of 29 I am often arrested by the fear that I should have been more genuine, more honorable, more aware, more considerate, and more upright. Already, I feel I have failed at so much. Already I believe I should have been better.
The sky reaches down to touch the shifting lake with innumerable kisses. Their ephemeral marks expand and collide and meld and disappear while all around them the fragile sheets of lingering ice begin to shatter. The crows call out in bleak regard and the lake patiently listens. I am blessed to watch the rain and to feel in its continual descent a secret and holy intention. With indiscriminate grace it falls to the water and, upon landing, unites ancient lovers with a delicate and repeated expression of belonging. The ripples cascade, and fade out. And the lake remembers herself.
We were loved as children for our innocence and our purity, and yet soon were taught by the world and those who loved us that innocence does not last. Our deficiencies were then revealed and we began the endless task of trying to be better. We sought better grades, more recognition, more achievements, and better friends. We silently compared our paper-bag lunches and our hand-me-down clothes. We looked in the mirror and discovered what we lacked. We learned we were too slow, or too weak, too stupid or too sad. And so we tried to be better. We grew up pursuing the better lover, the better job, the better worldview, the better body, the better home, the better life. We wanted to be better and we wanted do better and we wanted to have better, desperately hoping that accomplishing these things would render us no longer deficient. We played the ego’s game of worse and worst, best and better, and no matter how well we performed we never won, because we were only ever competing against ourselves.
We came into this world beautiful and innocent, untainted by our inevitable failures, and our undiscovered flaws. We looked around and saw our mothers and our fathers, our sisters and our brothers. We saw our own hands, and the wicker of our cribs. We felt the textures of our blankets, and our toys. Everyone and everything appeared before us as extensions of ourselves. Nothing existed beyond our scope. We believed ourselves to be the universe. We believed ourselves to be whole and sufficient. We believed these things with a deep and unconscious knowing that was unobstructed by fear. And then, we began to learn. We began to understand that there are others, and that we are not the universe, and that we are not sufficient, and that we do fail to satisfy. We began to understand our need to be better, and not just better than ourselves, but better than the people around us. Because love, we learned, is a finite resource, and only the most deserving will find it.
What is the better I have been hoping to find? I look beyond myself and see only the illusion of better. I reach to it and it turns to dust in my hands and though it crumbles I still endeavor to cover myself with it in ever thickening layers, so deluded am I to think it will ever make me better. Again and again, I repeat this gesture. Again and again, I succeed only in further concealing my truer self. What is better if not a fantasy by which to escape our reality? When we enter a relationship believing that it will make us better, we enter a delusion and a fantasy that quickly fails. We discover that that person does not make us better, and in fact often only illuminates our failures. We might begin to resent them for failing us. We might begin to wonder if there was someone better, someone capable of making us better. We leave one relationship for another. We leave one job for another. We leave our entire lives for a fantasy of what another life could be. And to this new life, to this fantasy, we carry our same deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy and plant them again in new soil, and are surprised and discouraged when they once again rise up to disappoint us.
Our lives are real, but the fantasies we create for our imagined betterment will never be. Our frail attempts at escape lead us only into newer and more blinding delusions, while the reality of our lives, and our beauty, and our inherent value become more and more concealed, but no less intact. Beneath every frail attempt at becoming better, no matter how many attempts we make, and no matter how many layers of dust we apply to ourselves, there will always remain the calm, though often forgotten, awareness that there is no such thing as better, that as we began, so are we now, and so will we always be; sufficient in our existence and entirely free of the hollow risk of becoming less than perfect. When we remember the moments in our lives when better was a meaningless word – moments of genuine love and acceptance, moments when we felt the true connectedness lying latent between us all – we remember our original state. We remember our universality. It’s only when we are conscious of this original state that we can come to understand our dreams, which, unlike our fantasies, do not separate us from reality, but return us to our truest reality, one defined by love and one free of the fear that has so often compelled us to make our vain attempts at becoming better than those around us. When we come to understand that love is not a finite resource to be competed for, but an endless truth from which any separation is mere delusion, we can then rest in our original state, knowing that we never left.
I ran through the woods, between the aspen and the oak. I felt the wind around my body, heard the leaves dance, and watched the dappled light shift in quickening withdrawal as it escaped the repeated fall of my feet. I was alone and better than none, and no better than I had ever been before. A deer came beside me and time slowed. I could have reached out and placed my hand upon her back. For fewer than three strides we ran together, neither of us better, neither of us different even. We had returned to something, for a moment at least, suspended in our deeper recognition of one another before we could even realize what was happening. And then she became aware, or I became aware, and she, sensing my awareness, became startled and veered, and disappeared, as I kept running.