Charlie Chaplin Look-a-Like Contest
In 1975, several years before his death, Chaplin entered a look-alike contest of himself in France. He probably thought he was a shoo-in for the prize and everyone would have a hearty laugh at the end. But then he came in third.
Christian Love: the Antithesis of Envy
The Christian’s self-understanding is that she is precious before God—however much a sinner, however much a failure (or success) she may be by the standards of worldly comparisons—and that every other person she meets has the same status…This vision is not only one that levels every distinction by which egos seek…glory…This vision, when appropriated, is also the ultimate ground of self-confidence.
For the message is that God loves me for myself—not for anything I have achieved, not for my beauty or intelligence or righteousness or for any other “qualification,” but simply in the way that a good mother loves the fruit of her womb. If I can get that into my head—or better, into my heart—then I won’t be grasping desperately for self-esteem at the expense of others, and cutting myself off from my proper destiny, which is spiritual fellowship with them.
Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 69. See the updated chapter in his Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
Comparison is Self-Focused
Perhaps the greatest irony in the life of continual comparison is that while it involves so much attention to the attributes and gifts of other people, it’s actually quite self-focused. From that hypercritical focus on one’s self comes the tendency to believe things about God and others that aren’t true but are highly formative. The myths we believe shape our approach to life.
Crisis Intensifies our Search for Wisdom
A life-threatening crisis came to my home when I was only 25. My wife suffered a near-fatal stroke and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors scrambled to keep her alive. Within hours, we were making decisions that face families countless times, every day. Our options included surgery, medical treatment and prayer. To make matters worse, two doctors adamantly called for two radically different courses of action. One proposed immediate surgery, while the other warned that immediate surgery would be the worst of all options.
Both said my wife might die if their course of advice wasn’t taken. A third doctor solved our dilemma by arranging a course of treatment acceptable to both of our first two doctors, and within a few months, that course of action proved to be the right one. Looking back on that time, the comparison is almost too much to comprehend. On Wednesday, my most difficult decision was what to choose for lunch. On Thursday, I needed to make a life-saving decision for my wife! Needless to say, crisis intensified our search for wisdom.
Fighting Constant Comparison with Platitudes (Does not Work)
I searched for guidance on how to combat the problem of constant comparison. I found that well-meaning teachers sometimes addressed the topic, but their advice usually ran along these lines:
- “You shouldn’t compare yourself to others, for you never know the truth about anyone other than yourself.”
- “You can’t compare yourself to anyone else, for you are one of a kind.”
- “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
- “You are God’s creation, and God made only one of you.”
- “People are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike. So you can’t compare yourself with anyone else!”
All this advice might be true and wise, I know. Sometimes it encouraged me; other times it just irritated me. The worst part was that it didn’t help.
Taken from Mythical Me: Finding Freedom from Constant Comparison by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, p.9 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Gardenias & Shasta Daises
Recently, I was working in my yard when the blooms on my gardenia plant caught my eye. I took off my gloves, laid my clippers aside, and allowed my mind to linger on those flowers. Inhaling the intoxicating perfume, marveling at the intricate way the buds unfolded to create the bloom, and fingering the waxy leaves, I could feel myself relax as I stood there, entranced by the beauty of the flowers.
Close to the gardenias grew some Shasta daisies, one of my mother’s favorite flowers. Maybe it’s just that my mom loved these blossoms so much, but something drew me to ponder them as well. Unlike gardenias, Shasta daisies don’t boast a beautiful fragrance; actually, they’re rather stinky.
And daisies are not nearly so intricately formed as gardenias. Instead of tender petals that unfold delicately, they consist rather simply of spiky white petals rounding a yellow center. Yet daisies stand proud and tall, exuberantly reaching for the sun. Meditating on the intricacy of the gardenia and the cheerfulness of the daisy touched my heart.
It occurred to me that the flowers don’t struggle with comparison. The gardenia doesn’t mimic the daisy, nor does the daisy aspire to be like the gardenia. They both shine forth as testimonies to the God who created flowers, the God who loves beauty and longs to bless all parts of his creation. Together they make even my backyard a place of refreshment for the soul.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,
And every common bush afire with God.
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes—
rest sit ’round it and pluck blackberries.
Taken from Mythical Me: Finding Freedom from Constant Comparison by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, pp.106-107 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Perfect (Mythical) Woman
In her excellent little book (Mythical Me), Richella Parham begins by describing a single event that led to a personal journey into addressing her struggles with comparison. 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.”
… “Well, of course, I notice their outstanding attributes. I have a great appreciation for people,” I defended myself. “But then you pick out each one’s greatest traits and assume that you should share those. You want this person’s kindness, that person’s poise, this one’s intelligence, that one’s sensitivity. And you do it with body parts too: you admire this woman’s face, that woman’s waistline, that woman’s legs. You determine each person’s strength and measure yourself against that strength, so you always come up short.
Taken from Mythical Me: Finding Freedom from Constant Comparison by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, pp.3-4 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Root of Much of our Misery
Comparison is the root of most of the misery we feel in life. Comparison makes it impossible to view ourselves from any sort of godly perspective. It is an absolute snare for the soul. Consider what comparison does to our view of others. First, when we compare ourselves with those we perceive to be better than we are in any given area of life, the comparison produces a sense of inferiority and insecurity.
Whenever we see those people, they become reminders that we don’t have what it takes and are falling behind. We feel we must toil and strive to keep up. Yet the harder we try to do that, the more we’re caught in a cycle of despair. Comparison erodes our sense of worth and self-esteem. And it has a flip side.
When we compare ourselves with people we perceive to be inferior to us, we are filled with a sense of superiority. The people around us become constant reminders of how good we are and how well we are doing, and judgment and pride creep in. Those controlled by forces of comparison have unstable and insecure souls.
Rosa Parks & Helpful Comparisons
Very often, comparison to an ideal is a helpful practice, not a harmful one. Helpful comparisons are those that place a normal or ideal condition on one side of a scale and a real-life condition on the other side, hoping to achieve balance. As Rosa Parks rode the bus day after day in 1950s Montgomery, Alabama, she compared the area of the bus where she and other people of color were allowed to sit to the rows where white patrons were permitted to sit.
That comparison fueled her discontent with a situation that needed to be changed. Finally, she summoned courage to defy an unfair law. Mrs. Parks’ action is just one example of this kind of comparison, which uncovers injustice and highlights the need for change.
Taken from Mythical Me: Finding Freedom from Constant Comparison by Richella J. Parham Copyright (c) 2019, pp.15-16 by Richella J. Parham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Running His Race
In his book The Burden is the Light, Jon Tyson shares how, as a child, he had excelled as a runner, winning a number of races and even breaking state records. But everything changed when another athlete joined their club, who ultimately would supplant Jon as the fastest kid on the team. This was the first time Jon had lost a race, and it was ultimately devastating to his 10-year old psyche. After that point, Jon gave up running altogether, not wanting to compete in something he couldn’t be the best at. But Jon’s story with running were not over altogether. There was something God still wanted to teach Jon through the sport of running, and it had everything to do with the problem with comparison:
I quit running when I was a wounded child, but in my early thirties I took it up again. I was looking for a way to stay healthy, and my best friend talked me into running the Chicago Marathon to raise money for a charity that works with children. I was nervous at first. Running 26.2 miles seemed about as possible as swimming the Atlantic, but everyone has to start somewhere. So I bought some running shoes and began.
When I first began training, it was humbling to realize how out of shape I had become. I couldn’t finish a single mile without stopping. Yet I would faithfully get up early to run laps around Central Park.
…My innate desire to summon my body to faster speeds had been tempered by the passage of time, but I recognized in my soul the root of something that I didn’t like. One time, when a woman who appeared to be in her sixties overtook me, I tried to increase my pace—but I couldn’t keep up. The tank was empty.
Discouraged, I slowed to a walk, breathing heavily, outdone by a senior citizen. I contemplated abandoning my plan to compete in the marathon. But as I was walking, I was seized by a new thought. I had no one to compare myself to.
…I knew then that I had to run my race and that unhealthy comparison could lead to serious injury, burning out, and possibly even death. A sense of freedom washed over me. It was as if a heavy burden I had been carrying since childhood fell onto the loop around Sixty-Fourth Street and Central Park West. This revelation changed my training.
I began comparing myself against my own goals and pace, and I was making real progress.
…One humid Chicago morning, I lined up with thousands of other registrants, eager to test my training against the course…The gun went off, and rather than sprinting, I jogged along in a delirious shuffle. The temperature was ninety-nine degrees the year I ran the marathon, and at mile seventeen I hit the wall with tremendous force. But with determination and grace, I kept going. Any thoughts of comparison were pushed from my mind by the sweltering heat; I just had to finish my race. The next few miles were excruciating, and every step felt like the last I would take.
At mile twenty-five, the roar of the crowd kicked in. A man leaned toward the road, glanced at my name tag, and then looked me in the eye and said, “Go get your medal, Jon—you’ve earned it.” A lifetime of emotions rose in my heart, and I began to weep. It would be a medal not for winning but for running my own race. A medal not for finishing first but for finishing the race I was called to run.
A few years ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000.
In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them. What did the majority of people choose? Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms. People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others.
People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others. Getting to board a plane a few minutes early is a nice perk of achieving Premier status. But part of what makes this a nice perk is that you get to board before everyone else. Because levels work on two, well, levels. They tell us where we are at any time in absolute terms. But they also make clear where we stand relative to everyone else. Just like many other animals, people care about hierarchy.
Apes engage in status displays and dogs try to figure out who is the alpha. Humans are no different. We like feeling that we’re high status, top dog, or leader of the pack. But status is inherently relational. Being leader of the pack requires a pack, doing better than others.
Whose the Fairest of Them All?
In Disney’s Snow White, when the wicked witch stares in the mirror, she asks a basic question: “Who’s the fairest of them all?” It is a natural, human tendency to measure ourselves against others. But what if that mirror provides a cracked perspective?
How do we resist the temptation to define ourselves externally, via comparison with others, and instead develop an integrated self, content within our own parameters? Are there feelings of frustration and inadequacy burrowed into our psyche that we may not even be aware of?
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Comparison. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!