Comparing Oneself With Others

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comparation

By Fr. Fausto Gómez, OP

After we are born, we often hear around us: “He or she is the most beautiful or smart, or less perfect than his brother or sister or classmate or playmate. Many of us were educated at home, in school, in other communities on the need to be better than others by comparison. 

When I was a young priest, I often used the lyrics of the popular poem Desiderata for my reflections with young students. One idea I repeated to them: “Do not compare yourself with others.”Is comparison a positive or a negative trait?

WORDS FROM A PSYCHOLOGIST

We live in a very competitive world. Through life, we compete with or against others, we compare - and the world around us compares us - with others. We are all equal. Still, some are more equal than others. There are rankings!

Some months ago, I read an interesting and enlightening article by Isabel Serrano Rosa, a psychologist, entitled Why Do We Compare with Others?”(Isabel Serrano Rosa¿Por qué nos comparamos? EL MUNDO, Abril 4, 2017). Let me share her main ideas on the matter.

We are told that when we are about one year old or a bit later, we see ourselves in the mirror and love our image. This is essential for our self-esteem. Sometime later appears the image of the other whom the adults surrounding us examine and compare with our own image. We may be told by them: “You are better than your brother or sister, or you are like your brother and sister, or your brother or sister is better than you; you have to be better than your cousins in school.” Hence, the comparison with others is usually born at home, and continues in school, in the profession – in the world. “If the comparisons are positive, they provide a valuable information on who we are and to where we can lead ourselves. If they are negative, then our identity will be wounded.”   

Enemies of our authentic self-esteem are: comparing ourselves with others instead of pursuing our own objective; focusing on our weak points which make us insecure; envy that sees the other as one who possesses what we want and lack; the “narcissist comparison” that shouts “I am the best and you are nothing.”  Comparing ourselves with others we admire may be beneficial. Beneficialcomparisonis a positive admiration that urges us to action (“If he can I can too”). Likewise pro-active comparison: the tendency to improve oneself by comparing oneself with oneself and try hard to do better. 

GUIDANCE FROM THE BIBLE

As Christians, we always go to the Sacred Scriptures for guidance and encouragement. The Holy Bible teaches us that envy is an enemy of beneficial and positive comparison. When a young boy complained to Moses that two other elders were also prophesying outside the Tent, and asked him to please stop them, the patriarch answers him:  “Are you jealous on my account? If only all Yahweh’s people were prophets, and Yahweh had given them his spirit!” (Nb 11:29). In Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) two brothers are presented to us: the prodigal son and his elder brother, who is resentful of his Father. Why? Because he considers himself better than his lost younger brother, who wasted his inheritance on wild living, but his Father treats his brother much better: giving a great banquet in his honor upon his return! The elder brother does not want to go in to celebrate because of him, who was always an obedient son, was never given a banquet by his Father. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son or Merciful Father, the elder son compares with his prodigal brother and feels proudly righteous while for him his younger brother is a great sinner.

Pride is another great enemy of true compassion. The Psalmist prays: “And from the pride preserve your servant, / never let it be my master. / So shall I be, without reproach, / free from the grave sin” (Ps 19:13). The Pharisees and scribes considered themselves better than the ordinary people. They compared themselves with others and felt superior: they were self-righteous - “holier and wiser than thou.”

The apostles James and John asked Jesus to let them sit in his glory one on his right hand and the other, on his left. The other ten apostles resented it: they also wanted to occupy the best seats near the throne.  Jesus says: “Many who are first shall come the last, and the last shall come first” (Mk 10:31: cf. Mk 10:17-31); “Whoever wishes to be the first will be the slave of all.” He added: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (cf. Mk 10:35-45; Mt 20:20-23, 25-28). 

ETHICS OF COMPARING WITH OTHERS

Comparison to be ethical and Christian must be humble, not proud, loving, not envious.  

Pride is a human failure and a fault against God and neighborLike every serious sin, it is a betrayal of love. It is the queen of capital sins and a heavy stumbling block to happiness and holiness. Pride is the worst “I” problem, the fat ego: I, me, mine! The journey of happiness entails continuing unselfing, emptying oneself of oneself to give space to God, to the neighbor – to silence. One begins to be happy when he or she goes out of himself/herself to encounter the other, who is a brother or a sister. Rick Warren, the author of the bestseller The Purpose Driven Life, writes:  “Pride builds walls between people; humility builds bridges.”    

Wanting to be number one, that is to be above others, may lead to selfishness. Steve Wilkens says that “to look out for number one” inspires living selfishly (Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics).  The longing for excellence is a natural longing, and a sound longing for excellence drives us to do the best we can with what we have: to do better today than yesterday – and not necessarily better than the neighbor. A pro-active comparison is healthy.  

The medicine against pride and selfishness is humility. Humility is the virtue that inclines us not to humiliate anyone, not to exaggerate our self-importance but to realize our need of others – of God. I remember the writing on the wooden door of the simple room of a Franciscan brother in Calbayog (Philippines): “When you feel perfect, try walking on water.” The classical saying in Latin says it well: Homo humus, fama fumus, finis cinis'– “Man is dust; fame is smoke; the end is ashes.” 

In the Christian perspective, what matters is not comparing and competing against others but comparing and competing with oneself, in humility, while appreciating and praising the gifts of others too. One may compare with himself or herself: “I will be better tomorrow than today.” Nothing wrong with trying to imitate the good qualities of others, who may be our model-persons types from whom we may learn! A believer may compare with Christ, who is the Way and the perfect one, to imitate him who is “meek and humble of heart.”  (Parenthetically: to award achievements, to receive an honor may be fine as long as it is deserved and helps us improve our own selves – and not our pride but our humility) 

Envy, sister of pride, is a failure against the love of neighbor - and source of sadness and anger.  Pope Francis writes: “The power of domination or competition… destroys love”; “The logic of domination and competition about who is the most intelligent or powerful destroys love” (Amoris Laetitia, AL98). Love of neighbor includes rejoicing at the success of others while comparing with others “secretly rejoices in their failures” (AL109).  

Positive comparison, then, may be helpful while negative comparison, harmful. The appropriate text from desiderata I mentioned at the beginning advises us not to compare ourselves with others: If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself…

Words to ponder!“No individual among you must become filled with his own importance and make comparisons to another’s detriment. Who made you so important? What have you got that was not given to you? And if it was given to you, why are you boasting as though it were your own” (I Cor 4:6-7). (FGB)