Comparison is the thief of joy, or so I’ve been told. It is certainly difficult to access your own sense of contented belonging if your gaze is always on another. The dangers of Instagram’s self-paparazzi have been well documented. We are all overlooked or left out at times; indeed, social media is both performance art and the gateway to chronic FOMO-syndrome. No matter how fabulous your weekend was, one glance at Insta will confirm that a fun thing occurred in your universe without you.
These are rough times for a person who believes we were made to serve and delight in creation and the created ones who inhabit it. Stalking the lives of others diminishes the pleasure we take in our own lives. The choices you make seem lackluster when viewed in light of the choice you weren’t given. The problem, it seems to me, is that looking at others invites us to assess how we measure up. Does your fun life expose the blah elements of mine? Does your exciting life expose the boring nature of mine? Does your crowded life expose the loneliness of mine? Our focus on others often leads us to find our own lives wanting, as we realize we fail to measure up.
It is equally dangerous to gaze at others in a way that assures us that we are more fabulous than anyone around us. Comparison can leave us dissatisfied, but it can also make us self-satisfied. If we give in to our most critical natures, we can weaponize our gaze at others, finding them lacking in every way. This approach allows us to feel great about ourselves, knowing we must belong because we are better than all those other people.
The point, I suppose, is this: When our eyes are trained on others, we find ourselves either diminished or inflated, either in despair or enjoying self-righteous power. Surely focusing on the projected images of others leads to a troubled understanding of self.
On the other hand, I would argue that it is equally difficult to experience joy and freedom if one’s gaze is focused inward. We live in an age in which self-awareness is promoted as a pathway to good health. We are told that to live well with others, we first have to examine and understand ourselves. Self-awareness will lead to healthy boundaries, to self-actualization and to intentional action, right? Sometimes, but not every time.
We know that comparing ourselves to others will not lead us to joy, but we often believe that focusing on self will do the trick. I don’t buy this idea, although I do think we tend to hurt ourselves and others when we have not done the work to know and understand our instincts and biases. The secret is in the approach and the purpose. Instead of examining our biases so that we can serve and enjoy others, we often pursue the magical unicorn of self-care simply for satisfaction. We might engage in long term counseling whose purpose is apparently to make us articulate and self-possessed selfish people. We might learn to focus our gaze inward, eventually believing that everything would be better if we learned to speak our minds and only do the things we want to do. Self-awareness IS indeed important, but it is also a very close neighbor to self-absorption.
How can we be self-aware without becoming self-obsessed? One of the keys is to realize that contrary to popular belief, joy and freedom come neither from measuring up to others nor from focusing only on oneself. Self-awareness is crucial if we hope to live well with others, but self-awareness and agency are not the goals of existence.
It is easy to idealize knowing and loving oneself; indeed, this is a lovely idea until it becomes the end that justifies everything. When love of self loses context, it gets out into the world and destroys communities. My teenagers are sometimes in foul moods, and the core of their grumpiness seems to be rooted in the fact that they have to do junk they don’t want to do. They feel like it is wildly unfair that they would ever have to do anything they didn’t suggest. We tell our kids, “too bad. The world doesn’t revolve around you. This is what it means to be in a family,” or other such truths. Do we live by our own standards though? Well-versed in self-examination, do we begin to believe that joy and freedom are ours for the taking if we can only learn to look inward enough to know what we want, speak it into the world, and then take action to get it? Joy and freedom do not magically appear when we become articulate selfish people.
On the contrary, we live best with others when we live for others to some extent.
As a person who finds independence intoxicating—tempting me to ignore the fact that I was created to thrive with and among others—I know the human condition is best survived together. We cannot find our way by gazing only inwardly or even at others as threats or as #lifegoals. Instead, we live best when we understand how we belong to those around us. Not how we measure up, but how we fit together. The next time life feels lackluster or disappointing, avoid the pitfalls of looking only inward or outward for proof of life. Instead, do the work and take the time to know yourself, your bias, your community and your purpose. Then move toward others, celebrating and improving the communities we share.