Comparison: it happens all the time, and it’s a terrible idea to compare ourselves to others. It’s a dangerous game and the only winning move is not to play. Let’s start by looking at King Saul from the Old Testament.
Saul is king and doing some great stuff for the Israelites. David even starts helping him out. But, he starts comparing himself to David and that’s when the trouble starts. “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7) sing the Israelite people in their victory song, and Saul gets jealous of it.
But get this: David doesn’t see himself in competition with Saul at all. David sees himself as helping Saul. In Saul’s eyes, though, David’s glory is taking away from his own.
Soon Saul becomes a power-hungry king, abusing his power to try to kill David (twice), hunt him down, kill innocent priests who help David, kill Jonathan for being David’s friend. It’s a downward spiral and becomes his downfall.
It’s a pretty stark lesson about what can happen when we compare. But surely that won’t happen to me, right? Well, chances are you and I won’t be king or try to have someone killed. Yet, the comparison game can wreak havoc on our spiritual lives and our happiness.
We can fall into the same trap if God raises up others to a higher spot than us, blesses a ministry more than us, or when our mentee surpass us. Instead of letting go and passing the torch to them and encouraging them, we can grasp and try to keep them down.
Comparing Our “Stuff”
Comparing our material things, our “stuff”, is probably the quickest and easiest way it happens. The phone we have, our car, our clothes, that sort of thing. Comparison eggs us on to buy or get the next big thing.
And it doesn’t stop at things either. Our friends, our families, our significant others, our jobs, and our accomplishments also can become commodities to “improve.”
Remember: Your worth does not come from your things or your accomplishments. It comes from God.
Comparing in the Church
What about at Mass? We can compare one parish to another on how welcoming they are, or how the homily is, or the music, or if someone’s youth ministry or Bible study has more people in it or is more fun.
It even happens in our own faith life: how often you go to Mass, pray, go on retreat, sins you do or don’t struggle with, virtues you do or don’t have.
Comparison is deadly in both directions, especially when it comes to faith life. “They’re better than me because they have XYZ” leads to discouragement. “I’m better than them because I have XYZ” leads to pride.
How to Fight It
Different people might be playing the game (of life) on a different difficulty level. What’s a step towards virtue for one person might actually be a hindrance for someone else. For me, a few years ago I really struggled with holy leisure, I just didn’t take very many breaks. I turned to video games, and at the time it was really helpful at getting me to not work as much. But here I am, a few years later and now video games are hindering me and I need to turn to other hobbies. So even in one person’s life, what’s helpful at one time might not be helpful later. We can’t even compare Present Me to Past Me.
Knowing that other people are playing on a different difficulty helps break the comparison mindset.
Wisdom from St. Catherine of Siena
In her Dialogue, God the Father and St. Catherine of Siena talk. This excerpt is from when God the Father is addressing her as he talks about how He’s distributed his gifts and talents among people.
“I have distributed them all in such a way that no one has all of them. Thus have I given you reason – necessity, in fact – to practice mutual charity. For I could well have supplied each of you with all your needs, both spiritual and material. But I wanted to make you dependent on one another so that each of you would be my minister, dispensing the graces and gifts you have received from me. So whether you will it or not, you cannot escape the exercise of charity! Yet, unless you do it for love of me, it is worth nothing to you in the realm of grace.”
Rather than letting our differences (of gifts and talents) divide us or lead to comparison. God has better plans. He wants us to use our unique gifts for building up everyone else. Boom.