“God, if you can’t make me thin, then make my friends look fat”
– the late humourist and columnist Erma Bombeck once prayed.
Even as we laugh at the wittiness of those words, it tacitly points to the often overlooked problem of comparison.
Comparing one’s complexion, physique, skill, salary, car, house and other measurable and immeasurable things to that of others is nothing but a natural tendency and a way of life for almost all. While some consider it as an essential habit towards an ambitious and competitive life, others see it as a means of persuading their young ones to conform to a standard or modify an errant behaviour. Whatever the reasoning be, the fact is- most people are blind to the long-lasting side effects of such social comparisons.
As a child, who hasn’t heard those words “why can’t you score like the other boy in your class?” or “why don’t you learn from your cousin?” Here’s how a mother explains the logic behind those corrective words – “Children needs examples to follow and the easiest ones they could relate to are the other children of the same age”. In another conversation, a young urban parent was candid enough to return the question back – “What’s the big deal about it? Everyone does that!”
True! The fact is everyone does it. I too was ill-informed on the negative effects of this least spoken social sin, till I came across a young life equally talented and disappointed. I often asked myself “How could someone with so many inborn talents be so lacking in confidence and elusive in nature?” As I delved a little deeper into the problem, I realised that what I initially concluded as a case of diffidence, wasn’t really one of that sort.
Unlike the other children in the family, the boy was more interested in arts than in academics. In order to bring him into the fold of academic performers in the family, the mother made it a habit to point to the so called ‘good examples’ of studious children in the family and neighbourhood. “Learn from that boy” became a regular piece of advice. And the end-result – an extremely talented youngster who thinks that he is too inferior to the rest of the world. The scars were so deep that it seemed that it would take ages to make him realise that he isn’t any less than others.
This isn’t a one-off case in some far away land, but a usual story in many homes which unknowingly bred children with low self-esteem and inferiority complex. The sad fact is that most parents fail to realise or accept that comparative corrections are nothing but an impediment to normal growth.
One might ask- Isn’t this just another childhood problem that all will grow out in time? The fact is – the problem of comparison doesn’t end with childhood, but only starts with it, proves the many incidents and experiences in all of our lives. Take a look at these real-life ones, I have come across recently.
- A husband who often compares his wife to that of his friend’s:
“Anil’s wife cooks delicious pastries and cakes. Why can’t you too cook like that?”
- Two women clash over taking leave from work due to painful menstrual periods. One says to the other “I too had painful chums, but I worked hard without taking any leave. Why can’t you do the same?”
- A college student who looks down at his classmate who is poor in maths “This is so simple. I solved it in just 2 minutes. I don’t understand why you need so much time to solve this problem.”
These and the many other real-life examples only reinstate the fact that the problem of comparison doesn’t end with childhood, but only gain new dimensions as we grow older. If other fellow beings were our yardstick for comparisons at a younger age, the point of reference turns inward as we grow older and become more and more aware of our own capabilities and talents. No wonder the question “if I can, why can’t you?” has become a common phrase among grown-ups but not among the young ones.
What then? Am I suggesting that one should stay away from the farthest thought of comparing one to another? Not at all! By having a clear understanding on what is to be compared and what not, one can turn comparative judgments into a constructive force that transforms and builds a person. Here is some practical wisdom that you can apply when you feel compelled to draw comparisons with your fellow beings.
1. In matters of innate capacities, compare yourself with your own best
Whether you are comparing yourself to others or comparing between your fellow beings, it is nothing less than a sin, for you are comparing the incomparable. How can two individuals born with different IQ levels, capacities and talents be weighed on the same scale? The fact is – how much ever we try to compartmentalise people based on their age, talent, physique and other capabilities, each person is unique in his own way.
Such unfair comparisons not only show a blind-eye to the unique you, but more dangerously seek means to regret about what you are and what you are not. In most cases, comparisons are drawn between your worst and others best, which becomes source of low self-esteem, depression, diffidence and constant worries. On the other hand, if you are comparing your best to others worst, you’ll end up bragging about yourself and looking down at others saying “if I can, why can’t you?”, an even more damaging state.
When it comes to matters of intellect, inherent talents and capacities, the right thing to do is compare yourself vs. your own best.
When it comes to matters of intellect, inherent talents and capacities, the right thing to do is compare yourself vs. your own best. Place all your accomplishments, failures, and all of your efforts against your own very best and ask yourself these simple questions- How sincerely did I make use of God given talents and opportunities? Did I accomplish it in the most honest way?
Did I use my time for the right things in the right manner? Did I do it to the best of my abilities or was it just to throw dust in the eyes of my parents and superiors? While such self-appraisal questions are widely used in self-improvement programs, counselling and employee appraisals, this piece of advice comes directly from the Holy Bible.
“Let everyone be sure that he is doing his very best, for then he will have the personal satisfaction of work well done and won’t need to compare himself with someone else.” The Epistle to Galatians 6:4.
Following this divine rule is the way to find true satisfaction in your efforts. Remember- you may not be able to become the world’s best, but you can always become your best, which is what really matters in this world and even on the final day of accounts. That’s what the Word of God says in Romans 14:12: “each of us shall give account of himself to God.” Take good note of the words ‘each of us’ and ‘account of himself’. It means- on the final day of rewards, when we stand before the throne of Christ, there will not be any more comparative judgments, no cumulative grading systems that’s based on other’s performance, but it’s only about your abilities, talents, time and opportunities vs. You.
2. In matters of character, compare yourself with the upright
when it comes to matters of character and morality, the right thing to do is to weigh yourself against the virtuous.
In matters of human capacities and innate talents, if the right thing to do was to compare yourself with your own best, when it comes to matters of character and morality, the right thing to do is to weigh yourself against the virtuous.
What makes this distinction plausible is the fact that ‘talents are innate, while character is formed.’ Without doubt, along with innate talents, every human being has an inborn sense of right and wrong, a God established morality monitor commonly referred to as conscience that acts as an ethics-umpire in our thoughts and deeds. Deep in our hearts we could hear a voice that tells us what’s right and what’s not, but unless we have the motivation to do the morally right, it’s goes unheeded. This is where we need examples of God-fearing people whose virtuous life and stories of sacrifice will inspire, correct and guide us in our decisions. Moreover, a big part of this morality is influenced and shaped by one’s family, friends, education, religion and society. At every stage of our life, we look to our contemporaries and elders in forming our notions of right, wrong and what’s acceptable in the society. This brings us to the importance of having upright people (like Jesus Christ) as role models in life, with whom we can compare, correct and build our character.
When the Word of God commands us to be imitators of Jesus Christ, it is pointed towards imitating His virtuous life and character and not His abilities and capacities. This principle remains the same while learning from all godly men and women whose life is recorded in the Bible for our instruction, learning and encouragement. The matter of fact is- you can’t be an Apostle Paul in your calling, abilities and talents, but you can match Apostle Paul in his self-discipline, passion for God, spiritual habits and love for the gospel and his brethren.
For most people including believers, comparing the incomparable is nothing but a habit, or at most, a venial sin. However, restraining yourself from such unhealthy comparisons, comments and criticisms can help improve relationships, be it in family, church, office or other avenues. The next time you feel compelled to draw comparative judgments based on skin colour, physique, talents and IQ, take a good long pause to ensure that your comments are directed towards the changeable part of the person. Comparing your inherent features to others or commenting on another’s unchangeable inborn features can only make the person regretful of his nature and capacities. The right thing to do is to accept the innate, while strive towards improving the changeable part. Let us sharpen our skills, make most of our abilities and make best use of God given talents, while endeavouring to transform our character to the likeness of Lord Jesus Christ.