The married students sat in a semi-circle, introducing themselves. “I’m John and this is my wife Jenny,” my husband said. Another young man piped-up. “I’m also John,” he said, raising his eyebrows at us. “And this is my wife Jenny.”
The first time we had them over, we were startled by the similarities between our lives: both Johns hoped to become priests. Jenny was an aspiring artist and I, an aspiring writer. We read all the same books, owned the same plates, covered our beds with the same blanket, and had each purchased (and then hung) identical dove plaques we had purchased when visiting the same catacomb in Rome.
We had never met a couple so similar to us. We could talk for hours. After that first dinner with them, my husband said, “I feel like we’re falling in love.”
The warm feelings began to fade, however, when a thought crossed my mind: Jenny and John are like us, only they’re better at almost everything. They were four years older and had more professional experience and charisma. I feared that behind our backs the other seminarians called them “Super John and Jenny” in contrast to their mediocre counterparts.
This was especially the case academically. The other three are natural students, but I’m not. Especially during those years, my brain was like an over-stuffed closet. Each time I tried to squeeze one more New Testament Greek word into it, the rest of my newly-gained knowledge came tumbling out. I bought dry erase markers and covered the walls of my shower with Greek verbs and nouns, but my retention was dismal. Meanwhile, the two Johns absorbed Greek by osmosis, acing quiz after quiz.
Over time, we fell into an unfortunate pattern. After each exam was returned, our phone would ring. “How did you do?” The other John would say. I began to feel like a silent, competitive war was taking place between us.
One time, just after our Greek finals were returned, I ran into the other John beside the mailboxes. “I can’t wait to find out what my grade is!” he said. I cringed and tried to sneak away. He didn’t take the hint. He followed me around the building, before he finally caught up with me. “How did you do?”
I shook my head, tears blurring my eyes. I was so frustrated with my failure and his success that I ran away, stopping on a bridge over a brook. I chucked my exam over the rail, watching it swirl out of sight, red marks and all.
The Unwise Servant
Because of my struggles with inadequacy I’ve got a soft spot for the unwise servant in the talents parable. After watching the master load his buddies up, the poor guy is given one measly talent. Better safe than sorry, he figures, taking the risk-free route and digging a grave for his charge.
When the master discovers what his servant has done he gets mad. He expected the servant to at least invest the talent and earn simple interest. But the unwise servant doesn’t like risks. Instead, he hoarded his talent; it couldn’t grow.
During those years, my refusal to take risks made me vulnerable to envy. When I moved to New York for seminary, friends urged me to get a job at a magazine but I didn’t have the courage. Working with words meant the possibility of failure in the area most important to me, so instead of writing I decided to “play it safe” as a student.
Because I didn’t have a clear sense of my own talents or how to use them, I couldn’t stop watching my peers. As my struggle with envy became chronic I started to feel like I had a debilitating disease. I became exhausted, ineffective and depressed. These symptoms seemed to flare-up especially around John and Jenny. Like the unwise servant, I was apathetic — If I can’t be the best, why even bother? “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming,” says Proverbs 27:4. “But who can stand before jealousy?”
A Dose of Reality
If envy is a debilitating disease, then the best medicine is a dose of reality. I wish I’d accepted my academic limitations and set my goals accordingly. I needed to realize that I could only perform to the level of my own best — and each of our bests is different in each area.
I also needed to devote myself to discovering (and developing into) my own vocation. Years later, when I finally did start to write, I wasn’t tempted by envy because I was channeling my energy into the work of developing my own talents.
During those seminary years, when I didn’t have a clear picture of myself, I also had trouble seeing other people as they were. I did an injustice to John and Jenny by idealizing and competing against them instead of recognizing that they too, were struggling.
Our ability to be vulnerable with each other can save friendships threatened by envy. When John and Jenny shared some of their struggles with us, the gap between us began to close. “When you brag about your life, you push people away. But when you share your struggles you draw them in,” said one of my professors. “You create the possibility of real friendship.”
Picking up the Pieces
“Hello,” I said, answering the phone.
“Jenny, is Father John there?”
“Yeah,” I said, handing the phone to my husband.
“We’re Fr. John and Jenny,” my husband said, grinning mischievously at me. “But we might not be the ones you’re looking for.”
It was a year after seminary, and my husband and I were filling-in for John and Jenny, staying at their house in Victoria, British Columbia and tending to their parish while they vacationed. That first night, we made their bed with sheets we’d given them years ago and dried our hair using vaguely familiar towels. Our Chicago kitchen hosts a similar mismatched assortment of dishes and utensils from other seminarians.
As we uncovered little bits of our life in their home I realized that when we left seminary we all took pieces of each other with us. Despite our struggling against each other our lives would always be bound together. As the fourth century Saint Anthony said, “Our life and our death is with our brother.”
This is especially the case with people we’ve waged silent, subtle wars with. In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the surviving veterans reenacted Pickett’s charge. As the Confederate veterans started marching toward the Union veterans an unexpected thing happened. Instead of battling as they had a half-century before, they spontaneously embraced each other and wept.
“The obscure little wars we all engage in could end in the same way if only we had eyes to see what those men saw as they fell into each other’s arms on the field of Gettysburg.” Frederick Buechner wrote. “… More often then not, the very faults we find so unbearable in them are apt to be versions of the same faults that we are more or less blind to in ourselves.”
Our greatest battles are not against each other but against the darkness in our own hearts. Only when we see this clearly can friends who have become enemies become friends once more. Only then, can we embrace each other and weep and work our way back toward love.
Copyright 2004 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.