The Comparison Trap
July 12, 2012
Many read Taylor Cotter’s “A Struggle of Not Struggling” for the Huffington Post yesterday like I did, mouth agape. Cotter, a bright and successful 22-year-old laments that perhaps by already acquiring a 401K and being able to make her own car payments she is missing out on the aesthetic motivation of poverty, the inherent artistry produced by struggle, so many others her age are facing.
But her perspective got me thinking. I’m 22 as well, and by all relative accounts, privileged. While I don’t have a 401K, I have lived abroad in China and the United Kingdom, I signed my first book contract this year, and I recently graduated from a large, private university debt-free.
Despite all this, I still have to restrain the jealousy I feel when a dear friend tells me she is headed to graduate school, all expenses paid by her parents, while I have to foot this bill on my own.
And in this moment, I am guilty of the same flippancy as Cotter.
The Problem with Comparison
We’re overrun with these days by the call to help the helpless. Nearly every Christian blog (my own included) boasts an ad for global aid and missions. We are told, often and without subtly, that every 3.6 seconds a child dies from hunger. This statistic and others like it motivate us to open wallets and hearts throughout the year to feed and clothe as Christ commanded, but they come with a nasty undercurrent as well, in that we risk becoming so empathetic over the crisis of the nations that we criticize anyone who does not appear to be doing their part in feeding the masses.
The scenario is usually like this: we are moved strongly by a need and give, perhaps significantly, to help that need. We presume that everyone else should do the same. We run into someone who seems to be relatively less busy, relatively wealthier, and presume that if they do not give, it’s because they’re heartless, apathetic, and don’t have the ability to discern or listen to the Holy Spirit whatsoever.
But we’re also overrun by success stories. In our American culture, the mindset of progressing the individual and the state are inherently tied to our socioeconomic history. We are told, often and without subtly (especially during an election year) that Americans are able to do any and everything they set their mind to. The Cotters of the world are alive and well today because they put their proverbial noses to the grindstone and set out to make a name for themselves. They too follow a command: to do all things in excellence as if doing them unto Christ Jesus. Here, again, an undertone.
The scenario is usually like this: we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and set out to accomplish and achieve. We see those who have not been as successful and presume that if they only tried harder, they would be able to achieve what we have. Sometimes we feel inclined to inform them of this, or we restrain an offer of help because we believe they are lazy, uneducated, or generally unwilling to purpose themselves.
Here lies the problem to both extremes: they operate exclusively on comparison.
How God Sees the Rich and the Poor
Look closely at Scripture and you’ll find there’s little support for the modern characterizations of the church favoring the poor and condemning the wealthy. Rather, Jesus works within the context of the individual. While the famed rich young ruler was told to sell all he had, we are not left with the impression that this was because to follow Christ meant you had to be impoverished, but that wealth for that man was the thing keeping him from complete surrender to God.
Do we leave the poor in their poverty and the wealthy in their wealth, and hope all is well? Certainly not.
And if this is true, then it may be possible that a poor woman might be asked to give up her pride in order to follow after Christ, perhaps a cost that is unto her the same as selling all she has.
Our human nature, however, rallies against this charitable mentality. It’s telling that the mid-nineteenth century Episcopal hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” boasted in the second verse, “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate,” has since been omitted from most hymnals.
Most recoil now at mention of it, but what about the lyric is essentially untrue? If we believe the writer of Proverbs—“The rich and poor meet together: the Lord is the maker of them all”—then we are left to conclude that while the plight of the poor is a grievance to the heart of the Creator, being privileged is not, in and of itself, a sin.
So, what does this mean? Do we leave the poor in their poverty and the wealthy in their wealth, resign ourselves to believing this is all part of some divine caste system, and hope all is well? Certainly not.
Scripturally, we are commanded repeatedly to look after the poor, clothe, feed, bless, and serve them as the body of Christ in motion. Perhaps, though, the members of that body can be from differing socioeconomic backgrounds in harmony. It all depends, as do so many things, on our perspective.
Choosing A New Metric
If we stop comparing ourselves to variant financial situations or levels of privilege, perhaps we’ll give the Holy Ghost enough room to begin the hard and quickening work of cutting away the blights of our own hearts. Perhaps, too, we’ll number our gifts as they are, not what they aren’t.
For out of the abundance of what we have been given, no matter how small or great, if we are able to see it as gift, we are able to give it away to those in need.
We can’t underestimate this. We’re talking God in these lines. He will do as He pleases, miraculous and mighty. This gift might be the kiss of the homeless woman upon the forehead of the Wall Street executive who bends to drop money into her cup. The Holy Spirit finds us, unexpected and overwhelming, when we least expect.
I may have rolled my eyes at Cotter, but we’re the same. Comparison eats at us all. And sometimes, truth be told, I have to grit my teeth and force my knee to bend to offer thanks to God. But maybe that is where He will come and find us, and show us what we have to give.