The Tyranny of Comparison

A troubling trend has emerged among men: a sense of discontentment with their lives. The root of this issue is that many find themselves trapped in a relentless cycle of comparison. Men measure how they are doing by how well they stack up against others.

One of my favorite stories comes from the noted Southern novelist and literary essayist Walker Percy who is known for his peculiar talent in exploring the deeper questions of modern life relating to our habits, our self-deceptiveness, our fears, and our bewildering complexity. In one of his books, a spoof of modern life entitled Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Percy offers a humorous take on modern Western culture’s obsession with pop psychology, which offers simple, untested answers to life’s most difficult questions. In the book, Percy gives a battery of multiple-choice tests as a reflection of the self-help quizzes that are so popular in many successful consumer self-help books and magazines. The questions are laced with moral challenges, often highlighted in humorous patterns, one of which I will paraphrase:

It is early morning and you are standing in front of your home, reading the headlines of the local newspaper. Your neighbor of five years, Charlie, comes out to get his paper. You look at him sympathetically—he doesn’t take good care of himself and you know that he has been having severe chest pains and is facing coronary by-pass surgery. But he is not acting like a cardiac patient this morning!

Over he jogs in his sweat pants, all smiles. He has triple good news! “My chest pains,” he crows, “turned out to be nothing more than a hiatal hernia, nothing serious.” He has also just gotten word of this great promotion he has received and that he and his family will soon be moving to a new home, which happens to be in a much more exclusive part of town. Then, after a pause, he warbles on, “Now I can afford to buy the lake house we have always dreamed of owning.”

Once this news settles in, you respond, “That is great, Charlie. I’m very happy for you.”

Now, please fill in the following multiple choice. There is only one correct answer to each question.

Question: Are you truly happy for Charlie?

  1. Yes, you are thrilled for Charlie; you could not be any happier for him and his family.
  2. If the truth be known, you really don’t feel so great about Charlie’s news. It’s good news for Charlie, certainly, but it’s not good news for you.

Percy then gives the following directions:

If your answer to the question above is b, please specify the nature of your dissatisfaction. Do the following thought experiment—which of the following alternative scenarios concerning Charlie would make you feel better?

  1. You go out to get your paper a few days later, and you hear from another neighbor that Charlie has undergone a quadruple coronary bypass and may not make it.
  2. Charlie does not have heart trouble, but he did not get his promotion.
  3. As the two of you are standing in front of your homes, Charlie has a heart attack, and you save his life by pounding his chest and giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, turning his triple good news into quadruple good news. How happy would that make you?
  4. Charlie is dead.

Percy then asks:

Just how much good news about Charlie can you tolerate?

Percy uses this exercise to flesh out the desires of our hearts. He wants to show us how we often compare ourselves to others.

So what about us? R.C. Sproul says that one sure indicator if a person is healthy and truly content with his life is that when he sees his friends and peers doing well and prospering and he rejoices with them. He is happy for them. On the other hand, when he sees them struggle and go through difficult times, he feels their pain and has great compassion for them. He hurts for them.

Hopefully this is true of your life, and that is something only you can answer.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


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