Tuesday, September 08, 2009

School Daze and the Comparison Trap

School started for millions of American kids this past week. I remember how sad I was when summer was over when I was a kid… AND how HAPPY I was when I was a tired young dad! As this school year starts I am reflecting on the impact that school had on me (and my children) when I was younger. What I am thinking about today is “the comparison trap.”

School is all about comparison from the get go. As I see it, comparison takes place in four broad categories at school: academic performance, athletic ability, physical attractiveness and social standing. The problem with that is that these 13 years, from kindergarten through 12th grade, set us up for compulsion to compare well into adulthood. This isn’t just a childhood issue.

I have experienced both sides of this trap. I believe it is a problem when we gain a sense of identity that is rooted in what other people think of us -- whether it is positive or negative. This is “the fear of man” that Solomon warned about in his proverb, “The fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.” (Pr. 29:25)

Let’s start with the easiest case, when we think LESS of ourselves if we compare ourselves academically, athletically, physically or socially with another. It is obvious that we are allowing another person’s strengths to rob us of the joy of being who God created us to be. We secretly root for their failure when we should be celebrating their success with them. We don’t see our own growth or improvement because we are comparing to someone who is more successful, gifted or blessed in a particular area.

The other side of this danger is when we allow strength in a certain area to create pride and a sense of superiority over others, to think MORE of ourselves and less about our need to depend upon God. This is just as dangerous but is not warned against much in our self-esteem obsessed culture. It is not the success itself that is the problem but it is how that success is interpreted in the soul of the young person.

Once we begin to believe that we need to be “successful” to feel good about ourselves then we become addicted to the approval of others. We are not able to be genuine and reveal our true selves with others. Like Moses veiling his fading glory we work very hard to keep up a front while we are slowly dying on the inside. We also tend to accept others on the basis of their performance or appearance not on the basis of their innate worth.

Okay, talking about “keeping it real,” I confess to you that I have struggled with the comparison trap throughout my life. I know much of it was rooted in believing the childhood lie that I am not a unique, one of a kind child of God who is unconditionally loved by God despite my failures or successes. My temptation throughout my half century plus has been to be a “people pleaser” and base how I feel about myself on how others react to me, affirm me or appreciate me.

I have found the best thing I can do to escape this comparison trap is to redirect my focus upon what God has said about me in His word and allow those truths to slowly soak into the depths of my soul. Here are a couple of passages among many in the Bible that I have found to be helpful:

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. (Galatians 6:4-5 The Message)

Let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t. (Romans 12:6 The Message)

I know that avoiding the comparison trap has implications not just for me but also for my children and grandchildren. If I can, as a dad and granddad, derive my sense of identity from God rather than from others, I will be able to pass that onto them. (I cannot give them something I do not first possess myself.) And if that is what I am able pass onto them -- then they will have received an inheritance of INCOMPARABLE worth.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” Benjamin Disraeli

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