Sue Bohlin contrasts some downsides and upsides of comparing ourselves to others.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I’ve been hearing that for decades.
But is it, always?
Examples of how true that is, most certainly abound.
I recently read my friend Amy’s Facebook account of her college experience. A gifted singer, she was a jazz vocalist major at a university known for its excellent music program. The only problem was that she had a friend and classmate who was so much better than Amy. She used to go home on weekends and bemoan the difference to her parents, asking why they couldn’t be jazz musicians like her friend’s parents. She eventually changed her major to pre-med, which was easier in comparison.
“A few years later,” she writes, “I was watching the Grammys. I went on to watch my friend Norah win 11 out of 11 Grammys she was nominated for!!! At that moment she did something bigger than most people ever even do in the industry.
Yes. I had compared myself to Norah Jones . . .”
Yeah, it’s not such a great idea to compare yourself to a legend.
Comparing oneself to others can easily result in landing in one of two bad places, particularly through social media.
You can look down your nose at people you think you’re better than, puffing yourself up with pride and arrogance. You can judge others for how they look, where they (or their children) go to school, what kind of car they drive, the home they live in. It’s easy to slide into contempt for people who don’t measure up to your standards.
It’s not just personal assets though. On Facebook and Cruise Critic, I read people dissing Carnival Cruise line as “the Wal-Mart of cruising.” This affordable vacation provides customers with 24/7 electricity and clean water, unlimited food and drink, a clean room and a comfortable bed with their own bathroom, daily room cleaning, more entertainment and recreation options than they can possibly take advantage of—all available in the middle of the ocean. Millions if not billions of people on earth can only dream of this level of luxury.
Or, more likely, you can compare your reality to everyone else’s curated, carefully chosen and often edited pictures of the images they want the world to see. Particularly for teenagers and young adults, this is resulting in a higher degree of depression and anxiety than the world has ever seen.
The invention of filters for social media apps such as Instagram and Snapchat makes it possible for people to compare their reality to the impossibility of unattainable perfection—of their own face! Growing numbers of people are requesting plastic surgeons to make them look like they do on their filter-adjusted images. Of course, no one can make a human being perfect.
So this leads to a morass of self-pity. It feels like people can almost taste a level of perfection they long for but it is denied them. How cruel! They wouldn’t even know this kind of sadness and discontent if it weren’t for technologically-driven comparison.
In a completely different vein, we are also seeing the incredibly sad results of boys comparing themselves to girls and wishing they had a girl’s body and a girl’s life—and girls convinced their lives would be better and they would be happier and safer in a boy’s body.
This kind of comparison is bad enough on its own, but with the rampant gender ideology and medicalization of gender-confused people, it is now easier than ever before to feed the fantasy and delusion that the other sex would be better through easy access to cross-gender hormones and body-mutilating surgeries.
This is heartbreaking.
And it is yet another example of how comparison can be the thief of joy, because trying to secure what God has not granted us leads to all kinds of disappointment.
So . . . is comparison always bad?
It can be a source of perspective that feeds our awareness of how blessed we are.
As I continue to recover from the trauma of tongue cancer surgery, I have discovered a worldwide Facebook support group for tongue cancer survivors. This is how I have learned how easy I have it. My cancer was cut out of my tongue, but I didn’t need a “tongue flap,” a graft harvested from my arm or leg. I didn’t need a feeding tube, and I can still swallow, and eat, and taste, and talk. There was no cancer in my lymph nodes, so I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation. As I have read of other people’s horrendously difficult journeys through tongue cancer, I am deeply moved with gratitude for my relatively easy path.
I see people living in homelessness, and I give thanks for the blessing of a home to live in.
I look at my canes, which I need as my polio-ravaged body continues to weaken, and I give thanks for the privilege of walking. I didn’t need my canes for the year and a half I wasn’t able to walk because of horrible arthritis in my hips. When walking was restored to me after hip replacement surgeries, my wonky polio gait changed from one kind of limp to another, but limping meant I was walking again! Thank You Lord!
I think the ultimate value in the redemptive kind of comparison, though, is found in comparing ourselves not to other people, but to Jesus.
Hebrews 12:2 tells us to “fix our eyes on Jesus.” If we compare ourselves to Him, we will see ourselves as appropriately small, weak, lesser than, and desperately needy of Him. If we fix our eyes on Him, we won’t be distracted by comparing ourselves to others and end up feeling either puffed up or put down. If we compare ourselves to Him, we will experience true humility, which is seeing ourselves as neither too big nor too small, but right-sized.
So comparison can be bad and ugly, but it can also be a source of great blessing. May we be wise in what we do with it.
This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/is-comparison-always-bad/ on May 16, 2023.