This post isn’t a shocking confession. I’m not going to be pulling aside a curtain to reveal my true family. I don’t need to take a picture of how messy my living room is right now (thanks to new toys, and lots of excitement carrying over from Christmas). I’m not going to go to great lengths to prove to you that I’m normal. Why? Because comparison is dangerous. It’s painful. It’s the stuff that makes us feel like failures at life. And the last thing I want to do is contribute to anyone feeling like a failure – or making myself feel like one.
I truly believe that trapped inside of most people (if not everyone) is a tiny voice that says, “You’re a failure.” And then we go through our lives trying to find ways to prove that little voice wrong, or to prove that other people fail as often as we do. And it’s exhausting. The game of comparison is a tiresome, never-ending journey. When we play it, we wind up feeling more discontent, more inadequate, more like a failure. And then those feelings of unworthiness start the whole thing over again.
This quote, often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, says it best: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We all know it’s true. The more we compare ourselves with others, the less satisfied we become with ourselves. But there’s even more to it than that. When we compare with others, we are on a quest for validation. We are hoping to hear the words, “Well done,” or to have someone tell us we’ve succeeded at something. But those words rarely come. And we despair.
Comparison can take two basic forms: condemning ourselves, or condemning others.
1. Condemning Ourselves
Someone just posted a picture of a beautiful cake they baked and decorated for their child’s birthday party. Suddenly you think about the cake you made from a box, or about the cake you picked up from the grocery store. You feel inadequate. Their kids will look back and remember beautiful cakes, elaborate parties, piles of presents, expensive gadgets, and a perfect, smiling parent putting it all together. Or, at least that’s what we tell ourselves. We see the couples who afford luxurious vacations, new vehicles, the latest technology, and a little voice inside our heads says, “You’re a failure.” We tell ourselves we are failures so often that we start to believe it. We lose our joy in the things we do. We convince ourselves that if people really knew what life was like in our homes, they wouldn’t want to be friends with us, or that they’d sit around and talk about how messed up we are.
We define ourselves based on how we compare with others, and we’re almost always on the losing end of our comparisons.
2. Condemning Others
This type of comparison is where unsolicited advice is born. And it comes from the same place as the first type: a search for validation. Frederick Buechner once wrote, “Envy is the consuming desire to have everybody else be as unsuccessful as you are.” A friend shares with you about his crazy day with his kids, and you chime in with some unsolicited parenting advice. A colleague at work shares about a difficult deadline she is facing, and you make a point of telling her how you thrive under pressure and would finish that project with no problem. Or, maybe you don’t say any of it out loud. You think in your head, “Thank goodness I’m not like that,” or, “Wow, their house is a mess,” or myriad other judgmental thoughts. The root of it is: if my life is better than theirs, I’m not a failure.
The thing is, there will always be someone whose life seems more put together, whose kids seem better behaved, who have nicer things, spend more money, have better jobs, or whatever. No matter how hard we try to find things to judge them for, there will always be something someone else is doing better.
Comparison is a sure-fire way to be miserable, and it is also a classic example of missing the point of life. Comparison – whether it is condemning ourselves, or condemning others – is all about me. The other day I was reading Isaiah 49 (in the NRSV) as I was preparing for a Sunday morning service, and something stood out to me in a way it never had before. I was reading verse 11 that says, “And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up.” It’s something I’ve read many times before, but this time I kept reading. Verse 13 continues, “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!” Weren’t the mountains just brought low? Weren’t they brought down so that others could be lifted up? But rather than gripe about their new, lowly state, they are rejoicing. They are rejoicing that others are comforted. They are singing because others have been made whole. They are celebrating the celebrations of others.
Life isn’t about me. It’s not about our ability to compete, to keep up, to prove ourselves, to prove the voice wrong that tries to get us to believe we’re failures in our lives. The goal of my life isn’t to raise the best kids on my street, to prove myself over and over. It’s about being present, showing love, lifting others up, and celebrating the accomplishments of those around us. Life’s about paying attention, noticing the small things, sharing what we have, and making room for others.
My goal is not to live my life in such a way that everyone around me thinks they are failing by comparison. I want to be a friend, a traveling companion, a confidant, someone who thinks about others before myself. I want to live here and now, and not in some made-up, pristine dream of a life that really isn’t any better than what we have now. Because now is a real opportunity, rather than an imaginary one.
May our words cultivate deep, real relationships rather than be used as weapons of war. May our lives be blessings of messy rooms, cluttered counter tops, days spent in our pajamas, and gathered around a table sharing meals. And may we show grace to ourselves even as we extend grace to others.