A kind reader, who said she ordered my book, recently* sent me this message:
“I was wondering if you may be able to answer a question. I see so many people look at themselves and complain about how they look. It seems that so many women like to compare themselves to others. I try not to do that. However, I seem to have the opposite problem. I look at others, and I am so grateful that God has given me all that I have. But I tend to maybe look at someone else who may be less fortunate, and I think to myself, ‘How I would not like to be in the situation!’ My question: Is this normal for me to think this way?”
This woman’s question really made me think and brings up an important point about the dangers of comparison, a topic that I only skim the surface of in Weightless. The reader says she tries not to compare herself to others and seems to have found peace with the way she looks and finds herself feeling grateful more than envious. God bless her! Isn’t it wonderful to meet a woman who is confident and aware of her worth and God’s grace coursing through her so much so that she doesn’t seem to entertain any negative thoughts about her appearance? What a gift!
Yet, when I looked at her question further, I began to wonder: Are we still guilty of comparison even when we don’t find ourselves lacking but instead find ourselves feeling thankful that our lives are better or what we have is greater or perhaps how we look is prettier than how someone else looks? What should we do with feelings that we’re better off than the “less fortunate” or anyone who may not seem to have a very happy life?
I say work on snuffing these feelings out just like you’d snuff out envy.
Although most women, I suspect, fall into the comparison trap because they’re feeling insecure about their own life and gifts, either way, when we compare, someone loses. We either end coming out ahead, feeling better about ourselves or our lives so that the other person is degraded or pitied – even if inadvertently. Or we feel like big losers compared to Miss Polly Perfect.
Besides, we can never fairly compare because we can’t begin to grasp the interior life of someone else or what’s going on beneath the surface – whether that outer shell is shiny and pretty or damaged and full of what appears to be abject misery.
Even those of us who don’t have our own body image problems (I can honestly say I personally know about 1.5 women who have never worried about some aspect of their appearance!) still may be tempted to size others up based upon their appearance and how it compares to our own. And I’m not just talking about how pretty a woman’s hair is or the size of her nose.
Society has taught us to assume so much based on appearance. We assume beautiful people are happy. We assume tall, lean people are athletes. We give meaning to fat and thin people. Slender, attractive men and women are always successful and popular. Whereas too often people conclude that overweight people lack confidence or perhaps self-control. We might even feel sorry for people who seem to “look” the wrong way or those who have an outward appearance that might suggest illness or a hard life. We have to fight this impulse and be wary sizing people up just by looking at them.
Maybe we’re out running errands and we see a well-polished, pretty woman who is sporting a chic and very expensive suit, and we find ourselves thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have money to afford that kind of outfit and those perfect highlights? I bet she has some really cool, high-powered job.”
Or maybe we think, “Wow! She must be so materialistic. I can’t believe she’d choose to spend so much money on looking like that when she could be saving starving children.”
Perhaps on another day we see someone who is deformed or maybe we notice a person who has lost all of her hair and we assume she’s fighting cancer, and we start to think, “Oh man. That poor, poor woman. How can they suffer like that? I’m so thankful I’m not her. I am so blessed!”
In the first scenario it seems clear that the internal dialogue is more comparative. We see someone that seems to have more than we do. We’re left feeling like less. Our own clothing suddenly seems shabby. Our job as an at-home mom – or whatever we do for a living – suddenly seems very unglamorous. We want what this lady in the Chanel suit has.
But do we even know what she has beyond a nice veneer? Maybe she’s been out of the workplace for years, but her husband has just died and she’s faced with supporting a family and is on her way to a job interview. Maybe she does have a high-powered job, but it stresses her out and leaves her feeling unfulfilled. Or she could be really happy. She bought that fancy suit on sale and gives plenty to charities. Whatever the case, we don’t know her or what’s going on beneath the skin and the fancy clothes. If she’s happy, we should be grateful for her gifts and joy. After all, we believe that all good things from God, right? Well, her good things are our own good things, too, because we’re all in this together invited to give glory to God for all of life’s gifts – even those that never end up in our lap but are showered upon others.
Now let’s look at the second internal dialogue. You see the same woman dressed all spiffy, and you don’t want what she has. In fact, you see her outward glamor as proof that she is superficial, maybe even greedy, and uncaring. Again, you’re jumping to conclusions. You know nothing about this woman. You are tearing her down to make yourself feel better.
What about seeing the woman who you have a hard time making eye contact with because you’re so sure she there’s inner turmoil lurking just below the scarred surface and that she is suffering terribly? Life may very well be hard for her, but does that mean she wants everyone to approach her with self-pity, or that you should feel better about your own existence in the wake of her (real or perceived) wretchedness? Be grateful for your life, yes, but not at the expense of her existence.
Maybe this woman – despite her hard life or illness or physical deformities – is someone who has a grateful soul; she doesn’t see her life as lacking at all or at least not most of the time. Whatever she suffers from has only helped grow her closer to Christ and fulfillment. She doesn’t want you to look away. She wants you to smile at her like she’s a beloved child of God. Because that’s what she is – whether cancer is eating away at her body, her face is marked with scars or a disfigurement, or she’s not sure how she’s going to make ends meet.
We’re still falling into the trap of comparing even when we are moved to feel pity toward someone because their outward appearance might suggest hardship or illness. (Or when we notice someone who may be having a bad hair day, and we think, “Well, at least my hair looks better than that rat’s nest.”)
Mother Teresa was known for her compassion; yet, she was able to serve others without making them feel like lesser people. She made everyone she met on the streets feel special and loved. She maintained their human dignity. I’ve read a lot of her writings, and she didn’t seem to be one to compare individuals’ blessings or their misfortunes. She simply saw her fellow humans’ needs and did her best to fill them with love and respect. Compassion is different than pity and evolves out of love rather than comparison.
Yes, let’s count our own blessings when we meet someone who has a rough life or appears to have one to us, but let’s also be careful to not compare or to categorize people (including ourselves) as being haves or have-nots – whether it comes to appearance or any other aspect in life. We all have the same Father. We’re not as different as we might think at first glance. When we start labeling people – even under the guise of being virtuous and compassionate – it becomes more difficult to intercede on their behalf. If we begin to accept we’re all God’s beloved sons and daughters, then when we pray or help someone else, we are really helping ourselves, too.
Even when it is clear that someone really does have a tough life and our heart overflows with gratitude for our own life, we can be grateful without diminishing this person’s dignity or her own blessings (and she may have many riches despite her impoverished life, her sickness, or loss or whatever else is ailing her). There are people out there who actually find great peace and freedom in their suffering and in their pain. They are not as deprived as we might assume.
Unfortunately, many of us have been programmed to see people through limited, biased human eyes rather than God-eyes. We jump to conclusions. We see our own or others’ external imperfections as evidence that we or they are not good enough or happy or that our faith or theirs is weak. But we are all equal in the heart and eyes of God.
When we put too much emphasis on what a person appears to be compared to the person we think we are, what we’re doing even more than falling into the comparison trap and jumping to unfair conclusions is seeing people not as human beings but as objects that are either broken or well-put together. The Church is very clear about the dignity of the human person and that we must recognize each person’s worth – from the unborn child to the disabled adult. We must train ourselves to look at people through Christ’s eyes, a lens of love. Then and only then will we begin to stop the comparison game and recognize that everyone has worth, and everyone is indeed beautiful, including ourselves.
*”Recently” is relative. I actually received her note weeks ago and promptly started writing a response, but life, as it is, got in the way. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and things that demand my attention outside of my family sometimes try to get in the way, forcing me to prioritize and to remember what’s really important – these little ones entrusted to me and a wonderful husband.