As I was shuttling a car load of 9th graders today, I imagined what they might be thinking. Some might regard themselves as "smart," others as "athletic," others as "shy." They -- because they are human -- see themselves in comparison to others. I found the desire to help them overcome their negative assumptions about themselves. I want them all to perceive themselves as smart. Unfortunately, the pool in which we find ourselves can affect how we feel about ourselves.
I can feel like the "athletic" one, when I'm surrounded by elderly people. I can feel like the "shy" one when surrounded by extroverts. Our feelings are shaped by our context. (I'm probably about average on both athleticism and shyness.)
Here I go, comparing myself to specific groups and types of people.
How can we know who we really are, if we don't compare ourselves to others? Who am I? and What am I like? are almost inseparable questions. And how can I know what I am like without comparing myself to others?
I'm starting to think that mature life begins when I get over comparing myself to others. The life I have is unique. Maybe the greatest challenge is to "be myself." It should not matter how other people's lives are turning out. I need to compare myself to God's ideal for me. Of course I will always fall short of God's ideal. But he transforms every shortcoming and sin into a way to make me better, a way to make me more like my true self.
But it's hard for Americans to get beyond the mindset of comparison. After all, we are competitors, us Americans, and competition is just comparison in the spotlight. Competition shapes everything in America. Headlines bear this out: elections, court decisions, sports, and stock market reports. What are these but competitions? Even natural disasters are all a form of competition as we compete against nature for control. In the classroom students compete for grades; with the SATs they compete for coveted acceptance at elite or even mediocre schools. On Black Friday we compete to save the most money. What could be more horrific than paying 10% more than necessary for that thing?
I'm not against competition. I think it can bring out the best in us. But I think we let comparison and competition take way too much space in our souls. Comparison may help us improve, but it should not be the way we define ourselves.
Can you imagine God comparing our resumés to see whom he likes best? Does it matter to him who is smartest? who has the most money? who has the most power? He loves us as we are, for who we are. He wants us to become more our true selves, because he wants us to experience fulfillment. We add in that stuff about being better than so-and-so.
So maybe freedom from the weight of comparison brings real life. And it takes traveling some miles and years to accept that freedom. I'm ready for real life and freedom.