Here’s a challenge. Try going a day without comparing yourself to anyone – not your height, your weight, your hair, your clothes, your car, your spouse, your golf score, or anything else. If you think it will be easy, you might be surprised. Just see how you do when you choose which checkout line to enter at the grocery store or the best lane to drive on the expressway. Those decisions are also based on comparisons.
Fastest, smartest, newest, biggest, safest, most – these are all words used in comparison. Our culture is formed on comparisons. So are our minds. We understand ourselves in relation to others; that is, through comparison. Those comparisons start in early childhood, before we are capable of articulating or even comprehending the meaning of comparison.
Are we smart? How would we know apart from comparing ourselves to others? Are we successful? How about attractive, or friendly, or wise?
While forming comparisons is a natural and necessary part of growing up, it is also a source of much of our dissatisfaction. If I lived in a Papuan village where I was the only person with a car, I would be happy with my car, even if it was rusty, the seats were lumpy, and the car could not accelerate past 35 miles per hour.
However, I might be very dissatisfied with that same car living in my Michigan town. Why? It’s not as if the car has changed. But the situation has changed. Other people’s cars are shiny, and comfortable, and fast and, compared to theirs, mine is a bucket of rust.
Comparisons can quickly lead to dissatisfaction. This is even more likely because comparisons are often rigged. I’ve observed that people tend to compare themselves morally to those they excel but financially to those who surpass them. Because of this, they are contented with their morality but discontented with – and motivated to increase – their income.
We frequently compare our weaknesses to others’ strengths and our deficiencies to their excesses. Social media has exacerbated the problem. We compare our dismal day at work to our “friend’s” day off at the beach, or our child’s temper tantrum to their child’s cutest birthday ever. The unceasing flow of images of success and happiness can lead us, without knowing why, to feel inferior or even misused.
Comparison is natural and need not be destructive. It is foundational to how a person learns. Without comparison, a musician’s instrument would never be in tune, an elementary school student would never learn to write, a game of horseshoes could never be scored. However, the reason behind the act of making a comparison makes a difference. When comparison is used to reach one’s potential, it can be helpful. When it is used to validate one’s worth, it is disastrous.
It is this latter kind of comparison that the biblical writers warned against. St. Paul wrote, “When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” They are not wise because the motive behind the comparison is self-validation and the conclusions reached by such comparisons are inevitably flawed.
Consider, for example, the person who compares themselves morally, which happens all the time. If he compares himself to a person who is lazy, selfish, or greedy, he may justify his own faults and allow them to continue their slow corruption of his character. If he compares himself to someone who has advanced far beyond him in moral development, he may despair and give up hope.
For this reason, the Bible urges people to “test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.” Such comparison will either lead to an inflated sense of one’s value, making one unpleasant to be around, or a deflated sense of one’s value, making one equally unpleasant. The way of contentment lies elsewhere.
People who have learned to be content do not try to validate themselves through comparison to others. They approach life as someone whose worth has already been validated by God. Because their worth is not based on comparisons, they can appreciate and enjoy other’s abilities and learn from them, without feeling threatened by them. This is a key to contentment and to the ability to enjoy others.
First published by Gatehouse Media.