What a relief when it turned out that the other students weren’t much different than us. But as soon as it became apparent that we weren’t going to be a blight on the class a new thought crept in. I went from fearing I was going to humiliate myself to wanting to be the star of the class. I didn’t consciously think that, but looking back on it I recall this inner desire to excel, to be the best, to win the admiration of all the other students as they observed my amazing prowess at these new skills I was learning. I recall feeling an inordinate amount of pleasure on the occasions in the class when I performed particularly well. I have always found joy in performing an athletic task well (though it has not happened with much frequency in my life), but there is a greatly enhanced pleasure if others see it and know that I did it better than they did.
What is most fascinating about that to me is that we compare ourselves with others and if we perceive them to be happier it makes us unhappier about ourselves and our own situation. The studies indicate that this is typical human behavior. The French political philosopher, Montesquieu, said, “If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” This scientific paper seems to confirm what he said. In other words, for most of us life is a competition. We look at other people and think they are just fine, their life is good and they are happy. That puts us into a bit of a funk because we don’t just want to be happy, we want to be happier than they are. We want to be happier than the average bear, to paraphrase Yogi Bear. What I experienced in that tennis class is pervasive. We want to be the star of the class when it comes to happiness. And that means we are comparing ourselves to others to see how we’re doing.
There are some helpful reminders for me in this. Montesquieu’s comment includes an important truth. “We think them happier than they are.” The studies confirmed we usually think others have it better than they really do. The lives of other people typically look a lot better from the outside than they do from the inside. It rarely occurs to us that people might be looking at us and wishing they could be like us or have our situation in life. We know our frailties and foibles, we know the pain and disappointments of our circumstances, but others may not see those things. So even as we look at the happiness of others with a bit of envy, we would probably be surprised to discover that others are thinking those same things about us. The truth is that no one has the perfect life. Everyone has problems and hurts and longings for better. One thing I’ve learned for certain through decades as a pastor is that this world is full of pain. There is a great deal of it in the life of every single person, though they don’t usually advertise the fact openly. This has served as an important reminder to me to never assume that others are as happy as they look on the outside. That doesn’t mean I should assume they are miserable. But it does mean I should expect that like every human they have their hurts, their disappointments and their struggles. What they need from me is compassion, not envy, because inside they almost certainly have pain they are dealing with.
The other thing that occurs to me is that generally comparing myself with others is a dangerous thing. Like in that tennis class it automatically puts me on the emotional roller coaster that takes me to the extremes of being fearful, ashamed or sad because others are better or have it better than me on the one hand, and on the other hand striving to be better than them somehow. I can easily go from fear of humiliation to wanting to be the star in the blink of an eye. The truth is that neither one of those is a good place to be for a very simple reason. Both of those positions are all about me. What God has put me on the planet to do is not obsess about myself, but to love others. Whether I’m feeling down because I don’t have it as good as others or am feeling somehow superior to them, I’m not loving them.
It is not news to anyone that comparing ourselves to others is usually unhelpful. Sadly it is pervasive and often seems like an irresistible urge. Who has not gone to a gym and felt intimidated by the absurdly fit man or woman who is pounding ridiculously heavy weights? Comparing again. In John 21 after Jesus had told Peter that his future held some unpleasant events then challenged him to follow anyway, Peter looked around at John and in verse 21 said, “Lord, what about him?” In verse 22 Jesus said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” In other words, never mind him, Peter. You just do what I told you to do. Good reminder for us. We look around at others, comparing ourselves with them and saying “what about them?” Jesus says, “What is that to you? You must follow me.”