Comparing one’s self to others to fix our place in the world is about as human as it gets. From the day Cain told Abel “I think Mama loves you more'”, people have been using others as the measuring stick for self worth, justice, status; you name it. Everyone’s baby is prettier than the one in the crib next door. Grades, sports statistics, social placement, special talents, fitness, and beauty all come into play. And now the Facebook world has us comparing our saddest self to other people’s highlight reels. It’s a treadmill that’s hard to stay on – and harder to get off. And that is just not helpful to anyone.
I remember as a kid of eleven, we lived with my grandmother while dad served in the Viet Nam War. Ten-Ten Second Avenue was a simple wood frame house in the shadow of the cotton mill where she and her sister labored for nearly a century between them. Funny, I really only remember two classmates from that year. The first was a very plain and poor girl whose name I recall but won’t write down here. The other was Bucky Davis. Good kid, school chum, baseball teammate, and the first person from a truly wealthy family I had ever met. He thought nothing of riding his bike over to the mill village to play ball in our backyard. And he invited me to come play in the huge white Georgia mansion over by Moultrie High School. Oddly, I don’t remember thinking about the vast chasm between our families’ place in the social order. Not yet. That’s probably because Bucky was a real friend, certainly the product of good and grounded parents. In time I would. Soon I encountered others with more than whatever it was I had less of; and they weren’t that nice about it. So I learned to sing, play the guitar, excel in baseball, made pretty good grades, thinking those gifts would afford the approval of the people I was comparing myself to. And I worked at it until it, for the most part, worked for me. And it seemed like a good thing at the time.
The girl I recall didn’t get any of that. I can still picture her; painfully shy, unkept and poorly shod. I hear echoes of the insulting way her alliterative name was bantered about by cruel and careless sixth graders. It was clear, nobody wanted to be like, be connected with, or compared to the disheveled child who became the symbol of all we saw ourselves better than. I do wonder whatever became of her. And I wonder just how hard her life was, what she silently endured, or how much she was loved when not in the place where she wasn’t liked. I wonder if, when our pretty, young teacher Miss Sandifer sought to shield her and shame us, it ever worked. I’m guessing not.
Why do I tell that story four decades later? Maybe it was because I preached a sermon a couple of weeks ago about the danger of comparing ourselves to others. I talked about how constant comparing invites a soul to feel either smug and entitled or inferior and resentful. Both pairings rob us of joy, gratitude, and the ability to glory in the good fortune of others. It leads us to bless people (or not) on the basis of how they look or what they can do. All the while, Jesus just loves them for who they are, and doesn’t think it’s too much to ask his followers to do the same. Yes, I confess I’ve sometimes felt myself shamefully superior to others. And I have felt what its like to be outweighed in some balance and found wanting. Pretty sure you have too. And I’m even surer that living out of those realities is hurtful to ourselves and to those around us. And it pains the one who created us in his image and told us that we were good enough, and really hopes that we believe him.