I was sitting in the silence of Quaker Meeting this morning, the room suffused with sunlight, the sound of the birds and the aroma of daffodils and snowdrops on the battle-scarred table in the middle. The atmosphere was humming with concentrated, practised contemplation (if meditation were an Olympic sport, Quakers would win Gold every time) and my thoughts had begun to settle after a busy and tiring day in London yesterday, when to my horror my mobile phone began to make its usual unGodly noise. It’s set to make a horrible jangling tune whenever a call comes in or a text is there, and at maximum volume, simply so that in busy traffic or a bus or amid noisy students I will hear it. I flicked the button to shut it up and saw briefly what it was and then shut the phone down.
Later I had a chance to re-read it and it was a forwarded message from a friend I see very seldom, with a message to send on to anyone I considered to be a BEST MUM. Oh, yeah, it’s Mothering Sunday; I have flowers from my offspring to prove it. I don’t by any means consider myself even a good mother, let alone BEST MUM. It’s subjective; my child tells me she thinks I am great. Since I am the only mum she’d had(or will get) I guess that’s real enough.
I do a lesson on comparatives and superlatives and I always add mentally to anything that says, “The Best——Ever” the words “SO FAR”. Best is subjective and relative after all.
There’s a scene in one of the Star Wars films where the heroes are trying to escape a hideous sea monster under water when finally the monster is snapped up by an even bigger sea monster and the line that followed has now become a personal mantra:
THERE’S ALWAYS A BIGGER FISH.
When I was a teenager, I was about the brightest and most talented person in my year. I excelled at almost everything. At seventeen I was put forward for the Cambridge entrance exam(long since vanished); all my teachers told me I would walk it. I had some extra tuition in one subject and that was all. I went to one of the bog standard comprehensives, a pretty good school in many ways, but nothing special. I was(with two others) the great white hope for that year. I had my interview, and waited. Shortly before Christmas the letter arrived. It was not what I wanted to hear; they were not offering me a place. I had simply not come up to scratch. I had failed. To say I was disappointed is an understatement; my teachers all doubly so. If they placed money on me, they’d lost it. None of us got in.
Now with the hindsight of years, I am glad. Life took another path. That experience taught me something very important (well, a lot of things) and one of those things was that even if you are a Big Fish in a small pond, once you are out of your pond, you are going to find there is always a Bigger Fish. There will always be someone who is bigger, better, smarter, more successful….And they don’t always wear a handy placard telling you this. You can find out the hard way.
Some years ago, after a Maundy Thursday service in a cathedral in East Anglia, I got talking with another lady, older than me about how we’d enjoyed the service and I commented it was a pity they’d got the Latin wrong in the anthem in the printed service book. She gave me a strange look and it then transpired that not only did she have a Phd to my humble BA in the subject, she was also on first name terms with my old Professor. Small world, isn’t it, but what struck me was that I had been lucky not to have been in arrogant or boastful mode. I’d met that day’s Bigger Fish and she didnt eat me alive.
It makes me think that I need to be constantly vigilant and aware that while I have gifts and talents, I am nothing very special at all, in the great wide world and that I must take care not fall into my real temptation of thinking myself great when I am really quite ordinary, because in thinking myself great, I automatically make others less.
And not all Bigger Fish are as kind as the lady in the cathedral.