In this time that we live in, filled with “friends” both real and virtual, the impulse to compare ourselves to others is both irresistible and soul-sucking. We need a thoughtful, measured approach to the problem of comparison that many of us face on a daily basis. Into this world enters Richella J. Parham, the author of the recent release Mythical Me, which charts Parham’s own struggles with comparison. But this is not merely a memoir of success and failure in comparing herself to her neighbors, friends, etc. It is an insightful treatment of a rather difficult subject. Writing on her own struggle with comparison is vulnerable in itself and worthy of commendation.
Parham begins her book describing a single event that led to both a personal journey into addressing her struggles with comparison, as well as this book. Having recently moved to a new neighborhood, Richella was invited to a Bible study. When she came home, she began describing all the wonderful characteristics of the women she had met that evening:
“Belinda is so kind and friendly. I wish I had her sense of humor.”
“I wish I could be more like Ann. She’s incredibly organized.”
“Boy, it would be nice to be like Shanna—she’s so poised and beautiful! I wish I had her posture and carriage.”
Finally, my husband interrupted me. “Richella, you compare yourself with everyone you meet. You pick out the best attributes of each person and measure how you stack up against them. His words rankled, even as I realized that he might be right…but what my husband said next really stung. “You’ve created for yourself a mythical composite woman, and you think she is the standard you should meet. But that woman doesn’t exist.” (pp.3-4)
That woman is the “Mythical Woman,” an imaginary woman who embodies the composite of all the gifts that Richella noticed in the women around her. One thing she implies but I’ll state: the person she envisions can’t exist because all the different qualities she admires are actually self-limiting in their contradictions.
Not only would it be impossible to have all the qualities of the “mythical woman” in a general sense, but also in a specific way as well. It would be extremely difficult to be both extremely spontaneous and fun while also being exceptionally organized. Personalities tend to form around specific skill-sets and skill weaknesses. These limitations are what make us human, and as much as we would all like to be highly personable, and organized, and flexible, generally speaking, we can’t be all things.
But getting back to Richella’s story, she reluctantly admitted that her husband was right. (Don’t we all struggle to accept our spouse’s expert analyses of our weaknesses?) She began to dive into the reasons why she was so predisposed to compare herself unfavorably to other women. She realized it had partially to do with a physical illness she experienced growing up.
Parham also recognized some of the ways in which her childhood was shaped by comments that encouraged comparison, “Why don’t you have manners like (fill in the blank)? Why don’t you keep your room tidy like so and so?” This serves as a good reminder as a parent not to compare one child’s behavior unfavorably to another.
Comparison by its very nature is atomistic. It tends to break things down into manageable parts. I compare my height, weight, GPA, my salary to yours, and then either feel better or worse accordingly. But does such a practice make any logical sense? Can I really decide who is a better or worse human being by any of those criteria above? This was part of the Parham’s realization as well:
“I saw myself as the sum of my parts, and I compared myself to others as if they were simply the sum of their parts.” (p.55)
But, as she continues, “we are whole beings, each of us created in the image of God.” (p.55)
If this is the case, if our existence is far beyond any statistic, then comparison itself is quite foolish.
And this, it turns out, is part of the solution to the issue of constant comparison. When we see ourselves (and others) as whole beings, made in God’s image, each endowed with a variety of gifts and struggles, strengths and weaknesses, we can begin to exit the comparison trap.
One last point, I really appreciated in the book was contrasting our desire for comparison with the Trinity:
The relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a beautiful circle of selfless, giving love—has existed forever. By adopting us as children, God gives us all the privileges of being his children and the circle of fellowship extends to include us. “The only human sufficiency,” writes Dallas Willard, “comes from joining the Trinitarian community of sufficiency through faith in Jesus Christ.”
And as members of God’s family, we are all members of one another’s family. If Jesus is the brother of each of us, then we are sisters and brothers to one another…
When I remember that my life is part of the circle of trinitarian fellowship, I can stop using other people as yardsticks for judging myself. After all, their success doesn’t steal any success from me. Their happiness doesn’t diminish mine.
The fact that they’re highly gifted doesn’t mean that I’m not gifted. In fact, we’re all gifted. We were made to work together, each of us secure in Gods boundless love and equipped to share his limitless blessings. When I keep that in mind, I can delight in other people and in my need for them. I can rejoice in complementing them rather than competing with them. (p.202)
In the end, I found Richella Parham’s book on comparison a helpful, engaging, and thoughtful treatment of an extremely relevant issue we all face. As a small bonus, I would encourage you to visit our Sermon Illustrations page on Comparison and find some of her material there. I especially enjoyed her analogy of the Gardenia and the Shasta Daisies as a way of illustrating the uniqueness and intrinsic value of each, just as we too have intrinsic value as Children of God, made in God’s image.
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