Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Comparisons - Am The Only One?

There are two things that can often bring out the worst in me. The first being the game Monopoly. I am not, by nature, competitive. It does not matter whether or not I win or lose at a game. For the most part, board games are merely for fun and enjoyment. But Monopoly's not like that for me. I'm not sure if it's the play money or grabbing up all the properties  . . . All I know is, my family hates playing with me. They don't like that I take such glee and delight in bankrupting them. In fact, whenever I play Monopoly, I notice that my character changes and I tend to devolve into . . .

I'll readily admit, it's something I seriously need to work on, especially when I'm playing one of my sons. It really is shameful to see a grown man doing his victory, in-your-face dance to his own kid. I can only imagine how God is shaking his head and going, "Really, Elliott?" Is it any wonder that Monopoly sits in our game closet gathering dust? And the thing is, it's not even my favorite game at all (It's Clue for those wondering - and I'm sure there are a lot of you . . .). Yet Monopoly taps into something deep within me that is not a fruit of the Spirit, but more like a rotted vegetable of self. Pray for me.

My other problem area can often be social media. Sites like Facebook can either be a great way to keep up with people or, unfortunately, to compare ourselves to people. How often has my day and mood been affected by someone else's post? And I'm not talking about some negative, angry rant, either. I mean, my day is so-so and then I check Facebook and there's somebody on another great vacation. "Didn't they just come back from a cruise?" I ask irritatedly. "How do they afford it?" This can turn to my griping about how we can't. Then it becomes a spiral about all the things we can't afford and how my car's check engine light has been on for about a year and our garage had termites and how much it cost to take care of that and how Danelle's car needs a new pump and on and on and on . . . 

Facebook sometimes feels like everybody's life is picture perfect and way more fun and far more interesting and filled with lots more friends (and don't get me started on seeing photos of friends who went out together to do something and, somehow, I didn't get invited) and while their lives appear to have fallen off the Travel Channel or HGTV or are Pinterest perfect, mine seems to be the hilarious epic Pinterest fails or that horrible driver's license photo that the DMV wouldn't let me do over (like my last one where I was this weird shade of orange, like I'd gotten a horrible spray tan or had become an Oompa Loompa from the first Willie Wonka movie).

Or I read the post about somebody's great kid who had some awesome achievement on the day my kid got on nuclear-red melt-down at school and I had to be called in to meet with the principal. Or my kid gets a zero on an assignment because he didn't turn it in. Or they write about going out to eat as a family and how an older couple pays for their meal and tells them how beautifully behaved their kids are and how they see Jesus in their family. Mine is the family other people would pay for us to eat at another restaurant. Yet I go on social media and wonder: Am I the only one?

How often does comparison keep us from our best selves because we are too busy measuring ourselves by somebody else? I know that I am far too guilty of doing this. I find myself wondering how another blog has far more readers than I do and gets an abundance of likes and reposts and comments because, so often, no comments are far worse than bad ones because it leaves me wondering: Is anyone even reading this anymore? Should I quit?

Self-doubts and insecurities abound. I start thinking about how they are more impressive and more talented . . . If only I could write like Annie Dillard or Anne Lamott or Henri Nouwen or Madeleine L'Engle or . . . If only my blog was as popular as Ann Voskamp's or Maria Popova's Brain Pickings or Jen Hatmaker's or . . . Then I read in Dialogues With Silence by Thomas Merton this prayer he prayed, "Let me withdraw all my love from scattered, vain things - the desire to be read and praised as a writer . . .to live at ease in some beautiful place - and let me place everything in Thee, where it will take root and live instead of being spent in barrenness."

Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, not compare ourselves to them. We cannot love when we are busy measuring ourselves against someone else.   Why? Because love turns to ashes when we do not choose to practice it over asking questions like, "Why don't I . . .?" or "Why do they . . .?"

One of the deadliest questions to contentment is, "What if my life were different?" Fantasy can often be a huge impediment to our faith.

Comparison can destroy us. Just look at the downfall of King Saul when he compared himself to the young David. Even though he was king and lived in a castle, he saw only through the eyes of his own insecurities so that his castle was less than David's cave. All he heard were the words people sang, "Saul has killed his thousands, David his ten thousands." David got more "likes." King Saul wanted to destroy David and it ended up destroying himself, as well as his son Jonathan. Is it any wonder then that the Bard, William Shakespeare, wrote in his play Othello, "It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meet it feeds on?"

While reading the Psalms, I came across these two verses (written by David):

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance (16:5-6).

But how often do I really and truly look at my life that way?

How often am I satisfied with "my chosen portion" and I'm not envying someone else's?  

Maybe it's just me. Maybe others have their acts together. 

Yet I'm learning that I will never have any joy in the present if I'm not actually in the present of my life but the Facebook post life of others. Often gratitude can be the hardest when we are imagining that it would be easier to be grateful to have someone else's chosen portion. When we're eating leftovers and see that friends are at some fancy, trendy restaurant and posting photos of their delicious meal. Or we're on a stay-cation and see those photos of the kind of vacation we would only get if we somehow got on and won the Price is Right. We look at those images and think, "But that's one of the pleasant places and that's a beautiful inheritance." 

How is it my beautiful inheritance to barely maintain the upkeep of our old cars when they bought another new one?

Soon I am face to face with my fallenness. I am deep in the well of my malcontent and discontent. I am ungrateful with my first world problems and concerns. What I don't see when I look at those photos is that every stone gleams in a stream. But what happens when you take one of those smooth stones out and dry it off? It most often dulls and loses the glitter and shine it had beneath the running waters. Why? Because our perspective has changed. This can also be the case with those posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. What we see when we go on social media is what others want us to see. 

Studies have shown how social media can have negative influences on a person's mental health. In fact, they found that people who spent a majority of their time on social media were more likely to suffer from depression. Part of this is due to what I have been writing about. We often look at others and think that we are missing out. It's like the title of Mindy Kaling's book:

This can often lead to feelings of isolation, anxiety and insecurity. Psychologists have even coined a term for this "compare and despair factor." They have found that social media, such as Facebook, is even more addictive than cigarettes and harder to abstain from than drinking. 

We worry that if what we've posted doesn't get as many likes as something our friend posted, that we aren't as well liked as they are. We begin to tie our self-worth and identity to our posts and the feedback or lack of feedback that they get. (What? How can a blog about someone's cat being cute get way more likes than my post on why we need to lament?). 

Albert Einstein wisely said once, "Everybody's a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it's stupid." How many of us feel like stupid fish because we are watching a monkey climb? 

I'm discovering that I can either have comparisons or contentment, but not both. I have a choice. I cannot be when I am always trying to become. How many of us miss out on the buried beauty of our being because we are too busy focusing on what we perceive as the others' better life?

Social media is not reality. It's not the whole picture just often the best ones. We often project the life we would like to lead and leave out the parts of the vacation where everything fell apart or the kids fought or the luggage got lost or someone got sick. We don't know somebody's struggles and we don't see the cup they wish they had. We cannot draw out value by the value others give it, but by the value that Christ gave it (and, ultimately, he died on a cross for us). I need to love where the lines and boundaries have fallen in my life without trying to move them to resemble other's.

We all long for validation and acceptance. That's why we post photos on Facebook and Instagram. That's why we Tweet 140 characters on Twitter or post entries on our blog. Then we eagerly await to see how many likes or comments or reTweets or reposts we get. How many followers do we have? But what really matters cannot be counted. If we get our validation from others we will also then receive rejection from them.

The Apostle Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, "Our work as God's servants gets validated - or not - in the details. People are watching us . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late . . .with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing his power . . . when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered and honored, true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God . . . The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren't small, but you're living them in a small way. . . Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!" (6:413, The Message).  I love that last part. "Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!" That is not the small life, the life lived in comparison to others. That is the life that Henry David Thoreau wrote about, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." When we live our lives in God, not the approval or comparison to man, we live openly and expansively with our songs being sung, not to ourselves, but in praise to God.

So I have coming to realize that my blog is not my identity. Yes, it is a crafted reflection of parts of myself, but I should not determine my own intrinsic worth by the number of hits my blog gets or doesn't get in a day, how many likes or lack of them it gets or reposts or comments. Ultimately, my portion shouldn't even be about me, it should be about giving God glory. It is understanding that He is my portion. He is my inheritance. He is the pleasant place. That's why 1st Timothy 6:6 tells us, "But godliness with contentment is great gain."

When I remove myself from social media and spend time in nature (where I love to just watch clouds), or reading scripture or poetry, in prayer or in silence, I find myself no longer focusing on other people's lives but living mine. Without comparison, I become more attuned to the joy (sometimes the hidden joy) in my life in the same way that honey bees navigate themselves in relation to the sun, from whatever changing landscape they're in, back to their hive. In those moments where I go out into what Mary Oliver calls "the wordless, singing world" (a delightful phrase), I discover that I enter into the glorious act of self-forgetting. In his beautifully poetic book Anam Cara, John O'Donohue writes, "In our mediocrity and distraction, we forget that we are privileged to live in a wondrous universe." And it's so true. When I stop focusing on what others have and I don't, I find myself realizing all that I really do have and begin to appreciate it far more. Our lives are gifts. 

I have to spend more time in communion than in comparison. Only then will I know a wholeness and a rest that I lose every time I move outside of this pleasant place that is called being who God has made me to be, with what God has given me, and to trust fully and solely on Him that He is making me not in the image of a friend or neighbor or coworker or celebrity, but myself more deeply realized in His son Jesus. This is the heart of contentedness.

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