Most of us have heard about the dangers of comparing ourselves to others. Sometimes, though, to encourage or motivate myself, I try to combine comparison with the Christiany task of counting my blessings. When I’m devolving into complaining or self-pity, it might seem helpful to consider how much more challenging my life could be.
For example, I think: Isn’t it so great to have flexibility in my schedule, unlike that person? Or, I’m glad I don’t have the responsibilities she has. Or, Why am I struggling to get myself out the door on time when some people have to get a bunch of children ready? Or, It’s better to be single and lonely than lonely in an unhappy marriage.
I live in the suburbs, land of small children, big houses, dogs, and green lawns. I have none of those things. In my church and my job at a Christian company, the majority of people are married and/or have children, and issues of parenting and family get a lot of attention. I’m also surrounded by people with impressive accomplishments. I spend a lot of mental energy on how I’m different, what I’m missing, and what I even want, anyway. It’s tempting to measure myself against others as I try to get perspective on how my life is progressing, milestones I am or am not meeting — personally, professionally, educationally, even spiritually.
Comparing my issues to others’ seems like an easy way to inspire me to make the most of what I have. Even if I’m different from those around me, at least I can focus on the potential advantages for me in those differences.
What’s Wrong with Comparing
There are a few problems, however, with comparison couched as blessing-counting.
First, it short-circuits true compassion and understanding. Compassion involves the task of seeking to understand and value someone as she is, not as I measure her or think she should be, and not even as she presents herself in specific roles. There’s much to each person’s story that I can’t easily see. Comparison oversimplifies the other person and her situation. Instead, I need to respect her unique set of choices, circumstances, internal wiring, even calling.
Second, comparison creates further distance between me and others. It pushes me into self-reliance. If my life is relatively easy, then I should have everything together. I shouldn’t feel stretched thin when my responsibilities and problems look smaller than other people’s. My home should always be clean, my schedule under control. I’m fine. I don’t need help. I can listen sympathetically to someone else talk about her life, but I should be guarded with mine. If we’re so different, she probably wouldn’t understand or be interested anyway.
Along with distance, comparison can fuel pride and judgmentalism. I might feel superior for having my stuff together or being less bound to conventional cultural standards. Whenever I measure myself against others, it’s tempting to assign some kind of moral or spiritual superiority to one side. So if I’m not denigrating myself, I’m growing more prideful.
Finally, comparison builds up resentment and weariness. Telling myself that I have many blessings can slide into telling myself that my pain and problems don’t really matter. I start to feel that my efforts and contributions aren’t worth as much, and I get frustrated that they aren’t seen and valued like other people’s are. But it’s still wrong to complain, right? I also feel guilty for not making better use of what I have. How can I feel overwhelmed when someone else is working full time while raising children, or earning a doctorate, or leading a ministry, or facing severe health or relationship issues?
I know that my struggles and accomplishments will be different from other people’s, but it can be tempting to dwell on where I could or should be compared to them. And that’s exhausting. It can lead to stagnancy, lack of purpose. If my life could be much harder, it might be better to not try to change things.
Learning to Count
To be clear, I’m aware of the importance of seeking a broader perspective beyond my narrow day-to-day life. I’m continuing to learn how many privileges and advantages I have as a white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied American. I want to be a good steward and to work for justice for people who lack good things I have.
It’s right and healthy to remember all I have to be grateful for and express my thanks to God and others. I need to practice gratitude over and over since it’s so easy to fall into complaining, envy, and frustration.
Gaining perspective and being grateful are different from the cycle of comparison, which makes me more self-absorbed and less joyful. To avoid that cycle, I think the best place to start is by regularly counting the blessings available to all God’s people — salvation, intimacy with God, hope for eternal life now and in a new world to come.
Then I need to learn to count my own blessings and my own needs before sizing up others’. Where I am now is where God meets me, and that’s where I can find the healing and abundance that will enable me to reach beyond myself. I’m not waiting in line for what’s left after God helps the more worthy or needy people. There is more than enough for each of us.
I’ve come to believe that once in a while we all need to hear a few simple words: “Yes, it’s hard. And you’re doing a good job.” Not merely as an expression of sympathy or respect earned by our efforts, but as an acknowledgment that each of us, with our victories and losses, matters. It’s freeing to look at what’s happening in my life, even when it seems inconsequential compared to what’s happening for others, and think, This is my life. It’s hard sometimes, and it’s good sometimes, and God is at work here. Then I can truly give thanks and find freedom to move onward.