I've had a love/hate relationship with comparisons for most of my life. I think it started with my first report card, but it cemented into my heart with my first set of standardized tests. Gripping my number two pencil tightly, I filled in a bubble sheet for the first time as a seventh grader.
And when that printout came back to my desk, my name typed across the top and my scores listed down the side, I embraced this measuring stick of my worth with arms-wide-open abandon. With standardized tests, I didn't get ranked just with my class or even the other seventh graders in my state, but I was given a national average—national. And with that, my 12-year-old heart found a place to camp out, a place to understand the world and myself as good, better, or best. When that sheet landed on my graffiti-scarred desktop, I found my way to feel "special."
By my sophomore year in college, my identity via comparisons had expanded well beyond grades and now included hip size. I would sit on one of the benches that flanked the dining hall entrance, and as female students passed by, I would compare my size to theirs. Bigger, bigger, bigger, smaller. Smaller ... bigger, bigger, same size? Bigger, smaller.
From my vantage point on the bench, I was eye-level with hips. I was a hip-comparison expert. I watched hips in shorts, hips in dresses, hips in tight jeans, hips in pajama pants. I sized up every kind of thigh/butt/hip combination there was against my own mental self-portrait. Somehow, hip comparisons equaled how I should feel about myself. The hip game—and all the other ways I compared—became the barometer of my feelings.
Depending on how those feelings and the hip parade would collide, I could decide exactly how much to eat. I would sit at my table in the commons, talking boys, grades, and parties with my roommates or sorority sisters. All the while, I was a closet scientist, observing my friends' portion sizes and food choices, calculating calorie counts and metabolism rates and asking them if they wanted to work out that day.
I had one friend who ate without shame. Whenever I had lunch with her, I felt free to eat a bit more than usual. Because after all, my more was still less than her normal. And less, in my warped comparison mind, meant I was better, that I was okay. It meant that at least for a few hours between meals, I could deaden the cry of my soul, the part that wanted me to admit that I might not stack up so well against others after all.
You may not struggle with comparisons like me, but it's hard to escape the temptation to compare in our media-saturated, instant-access, celebrity-obsessed culture. So where do you stand with comparisons?
Why we compare
Comparing ourselves to others starts as a perfectly healthy stage of development. As children and into our adulthood, watching and imitating is the way we figure out how to do things like kick a soccer ball or make a new friend.
Good things can come from observing others, such as aspiring to be like your mentor or becoming a writer after a positive experience with your high school journalism teacher (thanks, Mrs. Learmann). But sometimes I wonder if our ultracompetitive society encourages us to form an identity based solely on comparisons to those around us.
The competition that arises from comparisons segregates people based on their strengths, weaknesses, and personality. There are winners and losers, all-stars and benchwarmers, "us" and "them." Competition and comparisons also separate us in our relationships. Every friendship seems to have its own ledger. Our interactions with others help us decide how we feel about ourselves. Rather than offering our unique selves to each other in love, we spend an enormous amount of energy evaluating our lives as if we had a divine measuring stick.
This measuring stick tells me how to feel about "me." Comparisons become an escape, a way to avoid embracing the reality of our lives and of ourselves—just as they are. Comparisons give us a reason to be happy or to be sad without paying too much attention to what's really going on. We think, I feel sad today, but if I [cooked like Carrie, dressed like Kori, had money like Michelle, had a job like Jessica], then my life would be amazing.
Now that we've seen how comparisons develop, let's look at the problems caused by comparisons. Even if these don't describe you, they might help you better understand someone in your life who is caught up in the comparison trap:
Problem #1: Looking at a parade through a peephole
Tommy and Meghan are a typical couple, married nine years and raising two young girls. They live in the suburbs and both work full-time. If you walk by their home on a Saturday morning, Tommy might raise a hand off his lawnmower and wave energetically, and Meghan might chat with you while loading her little ones in the car for soccer. If you were the comparing type, you might envy their life.
But when Tommy struggles at work and gets passed over again for a raise, he looks around at his friends and can't help noticing how happy they all seem with their employers. They get bonuses and raises and always work fewer hours than he does. When Meghan plays tennis with her girlfriends, she can't help but notice that they get to play on weekday mornings while she slaves away behind a computer. Her friendships seem warm and close, but she's always on the outskirts, wondering why she can't have as easy a friendship with someone in the group as they seem to have with one another. When Tommy and Meghan find time to go out together their conversation often turns to whining their if-onlys, and pining away about the friends and coworkers whose lives look easier and who seem happier.
Watch out for the deception of another's "better" life. Pay attention to the people around you long enough, and chances are, someone's happy marriage will disintegrate before your eyes. You'll discover your coworker's husband is an alcoholic. You'll find out that friendly woman you pass in the church nursery was so depressed last year that she didn't get out of bed for a month.
Pain does not discriminate. Life happens. Jesus told His disciples "in this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33, NIV). He meant that each of us, in our own measure, will face pain. No one's life is immune, no matter how pretty the picture on the outside.
Looking into someone else's life from the outside and deeming it "better" is like looking at a parade through a tiny knothole, an analogy William Young uses in The Shack to describe our view of God's plan. We stare through that knothole, thinking we are seeing the whole picture, when in reality we see just a tiny glimpse of another person's reality.
Problem #2: Wasting energy trying to make life fair
I learned a vivid lesson when I sat in on a Sunday school class for tweens and their parents. Candy and Jesus were the theme of this class—heavy on the candy.
The kids came into class to find a lunch-sized paper bag plopped on each of their desks with their name on it—and their favorite candy inside. The students looked in their bags but were instructed to keep the contents a secret. I wish I could project a video of the experience into these pages ... the looks on the kids' faces were unparalleled. The joy, excitement, and candy-before-10 a.m. mischievousness!
"Okay, kids, get in a circle," instructed the teacher. "How do you feel when you look into your bag?"
The kids shrieked with excitement, "Happy!'
The teacher went on, "Now that we are sitting in a circle, I want you to take your paper bag and dump it out in front of you so we can all see what everyone has."
Whoosh. Once the candy was out of the bags, the joy rushed out of the room in an instant. Some faces went from smiling to frowning in protest, while others went from pleasant to guilty. Every bag had candy—but the amounts ranged from one minibar for some kids to a king-sized megabar of goodness for others. Every child had his or her favorite candy, but when they saw the quantities others had, they freaked out. They forgot their joy in the uproar of "That's not fair!"
There's nothing like comparison to keep us distracted from our own gifts. It worked both ways in that circle Sunday morning. The kids with a lot felt bad for their abundance. The kids with a little felt bad for their scarcity. And everyone became obsessed with fairness.
Scripture tells us that God is just in all He does. Deuteronomy 32:4 says that all of God's ways "are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He" (NASB).
But God's ways are certainly not like ours. The apostle Paul said, "Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror" (1 Corinthians 13:12). Yet we insist on evaluating our lives through that foggy mirror (or our tiny peephole). We don't trust an invisible God and His mysterious ways, so we choose instead to judge our own lives based on our partial picture of the true reality of life.
God is just. He has His way. But it's not our way. When we don't trust Him, when the mirror is dull and the peephole is small, we often resort to our own way—using comparisons as a means to judge our lives. We figure that our idea of justice is the idea of justice.
Problem is, our own distorted perception of ourselves leaves us wondering if God had given us the fun-size candy bar while endowing others with mega-king-size blessings. I'm beginning to understand that this way of perceiving reality withers my soul. As I've played the comparison game, I've found that I always lose because comparisons are what keep me from fully knowing myself and being fully available to know the ones I'm in relationship with.
In our quest to love others better, we must acknowledge and wrestle with our tendency to compare. Security isn't found in calorie counts or standardized test scores.
I have hope when I think of how God has enabled me to move beyond comparisons into a glorious, wide-open space where I feel the freedom to love what He's uniquely made in me. And in that freedom I've found the ability to also love what He's uniquely made in you. By closing the door on comparison, you, too will open yourself up to an expansive love that's beyond measure.
Taken from She’s Got Issues by Nicole Unice. Copyright © 2012. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.