A couple of weeks back, as the result of some hippy health thing that my wife, Fi, thought was a good idea for us all, our family was required to take multiple pills each day. Something about gut health and bacteria. I think it was very important.
For most of the time, Fi opened the capsules for Molly (heading for nine) and Clover (three at the time), and diluted their contents in some water or juice.
Late in the week, after seeing this procedure roll out many times while Mum and Dad swallowed the pills, Molly thought it might be time to start swallowing the pills without the whole capsule-opening thing. We agreed that it was a good idea as well.
We talked Molly through technique as Clover spectated. Molly gave it a crack. It was hard. It lodged on her tongue and didn’t move. She tried drinking some more water and it went nowhere. As tablets often do when you leave them in your mouth long enough, it started to taste foul and she spat it out before too long.
“I can’t do it; it’s too hard. I’ll try again when I’m older,” she said.
At this point, Clover had had enough of the spectating and gave it a shot. Opening her mouth wide, she threw down the pill, swallowed hard, then opened her empty mouth wide for all to see.
It was hard to resist commending her on her first-up success.
Molly began to cry.
“It’s not fair. I’m eight, she’s only three, and she can already do it,” she sobbed.
She cried some more as Clover sat there, mouth wide open, swivelling her head like a clown in side-show alley.
Comparison is a killer. Its sibling is self-criticism; its closest cousin, bitterness.
It’s pretty well unavoidable. Whether you’re eight or heading for forty-eight, you’re comparison-prone.
Sit any exam, run any race, play any instrument, do most anything, and you will be ripe for comparing yourself with others. Even the winner or the top-scorer is subject to comparison. After all, to be better or worse, higher or lower than another, involves comparison.
It doesn’t stop with overtly competitive pursuits either. You can compare your experience, your value as a friend, your indispensability to a team, or what you’re paid, to someone else. Each provides an opportunity to establish inferiority or superiority.
The real problem of comparison is when it turns toxic and determines or affects our identity.
At a run club that I lead, we often say that one of the joys of running is that the primary comparison of performance is with yourself. If you ran at all, or ran further or faster than you have previously, you’re a winner. If you ran your first kilometre without stopping, you just won! Clearly, there’s an enormous competitive dimension to the sport of running, but that doesn’t have to be a dimension you embrace. Your primary enjoyment can be derived from what you’ve achieved up until now.
Unfortunately, as you age, even this comparison won’t be comforting!
Motivational quotes will only get you so far when you find yourself paralysed by comparison. Comparison can maim you, cast you aside, plague you with feelings of inferiority, and, unchecked, cause you to continually bench yourself with unworthiness.
When it comes to comparison, your harshest adversary will often be you.
I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too
Games you can’t win ’cause you play against you.
This piece echoes a similar sentiment:
Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead; sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.
It adds this little gem:
Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults.
If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
While comparison requires another, dwelling on it tends to be a solo sport. It’s our desire to compare that determines how deeply we’re afflicted by the joy-stealing, solo pursuit.
The Apostle Paul writes something brilliant to the church in Galatians. I reckon it’s a worthy life-verse. Eugene Petersen renders it this way:
Make a careful exploration of who you are the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best with your own life.
The subject of inferiority and superiority alike is ‘self’. At its heart, it’s a desire to establish our self-worth from our self. While that seems natural enough, your identity is not founded in what you can do, or say, or earn, or achieve; it’s ultimately established by what Jesus says about you.
What does Jesus want you to do? He wants you to know that you are loved perfectly without condition nor comparison. In fact, when lined up beside his holiness, comparing your level of greatness or weakness, is tantamount to comparing how big someone else’s house is with the size of the universe; whatever the house, it’s small.
As Paul instructs, this doesn’t make our ‘work’ irrelevant, it just makes pointless the energy of using it as a pathway to self-definition and identity. He wants us to sink ourselves into the work that he’s given us to do and do our creative best with it. Not for the purpose of self-glorification, but God-glorification.
Paul isn’t advocating that we should oblivious about the lives of others and consumed with our own. Quite the opposite, he’s inviting us out of ourselves. He wants the result of our ‘careful exploration’ to be a pursuit of the stuff that brings us joy.
God-glorification, aside from being the pathway of greatest joy, is also the antidote for comparison and self-glorification. It’s as though God knew all along what would give us joy and what would steal it and so, graciously, he helps us figure out which way to go. We are the path of greatest resistance but in Him is fullness and the fullest of joy.
The writer of (what became) The Sunscreen Song quips that if you figure out how to forget the insults, “tell me how”. Paul tells us how. It’s not easy and we’re not inclined to it in our flesh, but it’s by turning our eyes towards Jesus and turning them off ourselves. It doesn’t make us irrelevant to the picture, but it moves our identity from ‘self’ to something altogether more life-giving.
Like much soulcraft, resisting comparison and turning your eyes towards Jesus is a lifelong work, but it’s eternally worthwhile.
At some point, we’ll need to tell Clover that pill-swallowing isn’t always a good thing…