The worst thing that could ever happen to a boy in my coastal Alabama elementary school was to get a new pair of shoes. After running around the back yard to prove to his family that he was indeed faster with the new kicks, he would be of two minds about wearing them to school.
His mother, of course, would want him to wear them. In no alternate reality could a mom possibly understand why her son would would prefer to wear ragged, stinky old sneakers (or as we used to call them, “tennie shoes“) while brand-spanking new white ones waited in his closet at home.
On one hand, he wanted nothing more than to show off the latest in tennie shoe technology to his friends. On the other hand, he knew that once he wore them to school that first day, they would never be the same again.
That’s because as soon as his school friends — his friends, mind you, not his enemies — discovered that he had new shoes, there was only one thing for them to do: scuff and dirty the ever-living crap out of them.Why? Well, that’s for their therapists to determine for sure, but I think we can make some educated guesses.
Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley recently did a series of sermons entitled “The Comparison Trap” in which he examined this phenomenon. He explored the very human tendency to always compare our situation to others’.
We either react to other people’s life changes with a bad case of the “mores” — if someone has something good, we have something better; if they have experienced something bad, we have experienced something worse — or we react with passive-aggressive behavior. We may say, “Well, bless your heart,” but we’re really thinking, “Yeah, he had that one coming to him.”
I’ve experienced this myself recently … on both sides of the equation. Some younger friends and colleagues have found success with their own feature films. It’s amazing how the success of others can expose the worst and darkest parts of your own heart. “They haven’t earned that. They haven’t paid their dues. That film is clearly for a dumb audience. It’s a good thing they don’t have children, because DHR would take them away from whomever made that thing.” There’s no end to the things we’ll say to assuage our own feelings of failure.
On the other hand, with the recent debut of my own feature film at the Nashville Film Festival, the silence of some “friends” has been deafening. My co-director and I have often observed that there are many people who were relishing the film’s long gestation, thinking the project dead. And I’m sure those same critics have a well-honed list of justifications now that the film is done: “It didn’t win any awards. I heard the crowds were tiny. Too bad they didn’t finish it when they were still young enough to enjoy it.”
Why do we do it? Why do we, even in the supposed maturity of adulthood, still trip over ourselves to scuff and dirty our friends’ new tennie shoes? The reality is our lives are like snowflakes: tiny, fragile and melty.
Wait, that’s not right. Let’s try that again.
Our lives are like fingerprints: uniquely individual and the best evidence pointing back to our own guilt. And we’re all guilty on some level. The best thing we can do as people, as Real Southerners, is to celebrate our friends’ successes, mourn their losses and hope that they’ll be there to do the same for us.
And when they’re not looking, scuff up their shoes.