My daughter Immy has a good line. ‘Always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then always be a unicorn.’ It’s not original to her, but it suits her.
In the absence of openings to be a unicorn, it’s probably best to concentrate on being yourself. That’s one of the themes that seems to run through this chapter (I know, I’m looking for themes that aren’t always actually there!).
Do not envy the wicked, not desire to be with them; for their minds devise violence, and their lips talk of mischief. (24:1)
Do not fret because of evildoers. Do not envy the wicked; for the evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out. (24:19, 20)
Do not say, “I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done.” (24:29)
Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the LORD will see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from them. (24:17-18)
There are different reasons for all of these sayings. To envy the wicked opens ourselves up to following in their paths, making the same mistakes. The same can be said of seeking vengeance – which may come as a surprise to the authors of some of the psalms.
To rejoice at the fall of our enemies may be natural, and again it feels like the mood of some of the psalms that I found difficult a few weeks ago. But to indulge ourselves in such shallow gladness means that we are allowing our enemies, even in their moment of defeat, to have a last victory over us. We give them the victory of letting them make us a little less than we could be – less Christlike, and so less like the person we are called to become, our best self.
In the end, we can be ourselves only as ourselves, not by comparing ourselves to anyone else. There’s a story which I’ve heard a few times and which is widely told on the internet, about the great 18th century rabbi Zarusa. (His name is spelled in many different ways in different versions!)
Zarusa lay upon his deathbed at the end of a devout life with great achievements and learning– yet he was agitated, and greatly disturbed. His students, who surrounded his bedside as he took his final breaths, in a confused attempt to console him asked, ‘Rabbi – why are you so sad? After all the great things you have accomplished, your place in heaven is assured!’
‘I am afraid!’ Zarusa replied. ‘when I get to heaven, God won’t ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you more like King David?’ He’ll ask me, ‘Zarusa – why weren’t you more like Zarusa?’ and then what will I say?
You are you, and there is no other you. Define yourself by who you can be, not by who anyone else is.
Even if you’re a unicorn.