Do you ever compare yourself to others? Presuming that you’re human, and that it is a human tendency to do so, you presumably have. Unfortunately it seems to be a natural weakness, a tendency we’re all inclined toward, until we overcome it.
I recently heard the story of one of my peers, recounting his life since we were in school together in eighth grade through to our mid-40s. He told of amazing accomplishments, helping people on small and large scales, locally and around the world. I was impressed! Inspired! Discouraged. After my initial reaction of genuine awe and appreciation, my hells latched onto that fleck of comparison, and I felt myself holding his marvellous good deeds on a pedestal and my puny, pathetic life in the gutter.
Once I’d processed those thoughts for a while, I managed to take a step back in an attempt to view our lives more objectively. For one thing, I only heard the good parts from my friend – he was giving a public inspirational talk, so of course he focussed on the inspirational parts. I don’t know what his home life is like, for example; he may be doing all this good stuff at the expense of the people closest to him. For another, it’s not my business to care how much more useful someone else is: I need to concern myself with myself, with my own usefulness and regeneration. If someone inspires me to be more useful than I was, great! But I’m not meant to judge others, I’m meant to evaluate whether I’m doing the best I can do. And anyway, life isn’t a contest or a race: it’s up to each of us to live our own lives according to the principles we hold dear.
Another perspective that occurred to me is that some people are ‘front-row’ people, helping and being useful in obvious ways – such as my classmate – while others are ‘back seat’ people, being just as useful and helpful but in the shadows, not in view of the public – a little more like me, I suppose. Being more obviously useful does not make those people any better than us back-seaters, I remind myself. The Lord, in His infinite wisdom, has created everyone to be useful, each in our own way. Everyone has her/his unique gifts and talents, which we’re to use to our advantage in being good and useful people. When I think about it, I remember that it takes all sorts: I wouldn’t want to be doing those massive public things, frankly; I’d much rather be doing my little, behind-the-scene things.
One of these ‘little’ uses is parenting my son. In evaluating my usefulness, unfortunately sometimes the number of children I’m mothering has crept into the dark shadows of my mind. I’ve only got one measly child (despite our best efforts); wouldn’t I be way more useful if I had a gaggle of kids? ….Then again, for all I know, maybe my ‘big use’ in life is to support someone else: maybe the main point of my life is to educate and nurture a future super-awesome global leader?! I guess this is one of those things that only time will reveal; in the meantime, I need to do my best with what I’ve got, doing my meaningful ‘little things’, keeping my eyes on The Goal.
In situations like these, where I feel inferior to these impressive people, I can (in retrospect, sigh) see that it’s the hells preying on my weakness, on my self-esteem. In those times, they’re attacking my desire to be the best, the most useful, the most impressive, the most important, the most superlative person. Most of the time that obsession with self is dormant, but nonetheless it’s still there, and it’s a difficult weakness to overcome. The Lord tells us that it’s the hardest to overcome, in fact.
‘The hardest battle of all… is with our love of being in control because of our sense of self-importance. If we overcome this, we have no trouble overcoming our other evil loves, because this is the head of them all.’ (Divine Providence 146)
(How encouraging! All we need to do is overcome our love of self……..)
Although our position in this world is an issue with which we each have to grapple, what it actually boils down to is the value we place on our self-importance. When we compare ourselves to others, we’re assessing how we rate relative to them – whether we are better or worse, more or less; we’re gauging who, in our own eyes, ‘wins’, who is more important. It is human nature – human, base, not spiritual – to want the best for ourselves, to love ourselves first, to desire the ‘more’ side of things, not so much the ‘less’, and in trying to be ‘more’, we want to determine our worth, to be in control of our worlds. While it is important to love and look after ourselves in order to serve others, the Lord clearly teaches that putting ourselves head and shoulders above the rest, for our own sakes, is not desirable.
‘The essential pleasure of our life is to love ourselves and the world more than anything else. This pleasure cannot be taken away instantly, only gradually; and to the extent that any of this pleasure stays with us, evil is stronger. The only way this evil can be taken away is for our love for ourselves to become a love of service, or for our love of power for our own sake to become a love of power for the sake of service. This makes service the head and for the first time makes the love of ourselves, or for power, the body beneath the head, and eventually the feet we walk on. …Goodness should be the head, and …when it is, the Lord is present.’ (Divine Providence 233)
Instead of thinking about whether we are front-row or back-seat people, let’s instead shift our focus to whether our love for others is front-row or back-seat. We do need to work on not comparing ourselves to others, as a step along the way to treating the bigger problem, the essential pleasure of loving ourselves and the world more than anything else.