Am I greater than or less than you? Getting out of the game of making comparisons.

Am I greater than or less than you? Getting out of the game of making comparisons.

I like to think I am relatively fit and trim for a middle aged man—and that makes me feel good— until I encounter someone my age or older who is in much better physical condition, like a group of surf dads I recently met in Sydney. 

I’m privileged to spend my time as a teacher and writer, but my book sales are minuscule compared to several “successful” authors I know. 

I am extremely wealthy in comparison to the majority of the world’s population--in the top 1 or 2 percent.  But compared to a young man named Mark Zuckerberg, who moved into our neighborhood a few years ago, I’m not well off at all. (Even after the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal he is still worth 67 billion U.S. dollars).

We instinctually compare ourselves to one another. Am I taller or shorter? Older or younger? Richer or poorer? More or less attractive, intelligent or successful? 

Where do you struggle with competition or comparisons? How do you get caught in the trap of feeling greater than or less than others?

Social comparison theory suggests that we tend build our sense of worth based the question,  “Who is better or worse off than me?" It usually feels better to come out ahead or on top. Research suggests that we are hard wired to make comparisons. In one experiment, when participants in a game saw another person lose more money than they did, the reward center of their brains became more activated than it did when they won money. In another study, participants listened to a narrative about an enviable person's successes. When details were added about this character’s failure or bad luck, the participant’s brain reward systems lit up.[1] We seem to delight in other people’s demise, perhaps because it makes us feel better about ourselves. 

Surveys suggest that the majority of us believe we are above average [2]. But statistically, only half of us can actually be above average. In their landmark book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger [3], Wilkinson and Pickett used statistical analysis to demonstrate the negative impact on health, education and well being in countries that have widening socio economic disparities— even in relatively wealthy countries like the United States. Their findings suggest that a widening gap feeds our tendency to feel diminished and disempowered by negative comparisons. 

The wise teacher of Ecclesiates once observed that “all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another.” [4]. 

We want to feel good about who we are, but is comparing ourselves a stable and enduring way to build a healthy sense of self?

On multiple occasions the disciples of Jesus argued about which one of them was the greatest, and in response Jesus said,”The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves…I am among you as one who serves." [5]

Learning to make comparisons is developmentally necessary, but ultimately unfulfilling. Jesus invites us to move from what is instinctual, to a deeper consciousness than can transform us. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” [6] Our truest identity is that we are beloved, each made in the image of God. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” [7] Internalizing this reality can give us the healthy sense of self we so desperately desire.

Recently in group settings I’ve invited people to place their hand over their heart and repeat a phrase to themselves and then to one another:

“I am made in the Divine image, a creature of infinite dignity and worth.”

"You are made in the Divine image, a creature of infinite dignity and worth.”

Saying those words can sound almost too good to be true. But how would our lives be different if we learned to live from such a deep place of worth? Humility acknowledges the equal dignity in ourselves and others, and frees us to serve AND allow others to serve us. 

PRACTICE

Each day this week practice a breath prayer that helps you remember your true dignity and worth. A Breath prayer (or mantra) is a short sentence you can repeat that helps you be present to what is real. Choose three times at the beginning, middle and end of each day when you will stop to use the mantra, repeating it several times. You could try kneeling as you do this, or bow with your hand on your heart. 

[1]The envious brain: the neural basis of social comparison. Dvash J1, Gilam G, Ben-Ze'ev A, Hendler T, Shamay-Tsoory SG.

[2] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/the-superiority-illusion-where-everyone-is-above-average/

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Level-Equality-Societies-Stronger/dp/1608193411

[4] Ecclesiastes 4:4

[5] Luke 22:24-27

[6] Matthew 5:5

[7]  Psalm 139: 13-14

 

 

 

The Courage to name and sit with pain

  With Dusty Feet Mob in Port Augusta, South Australia .

With Dusty Feet Mob in Port Augusta, South Australia.

During February and March, we spent 32 days in Australia:

  • Facilitating Thriving Family workshops and family camps.
  • Teaching in the Lightstream Spiritual Formation Institute.
  • Speaking at conferences and churches.
  • Leading Ninefold Path retreats and events.
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A memorable part of our journey was time spent with an Aboriginal community in Port Augusta. We were officially welcomed to country by an elder and ate kangaroo tail roasted over an open fire.  A group of women and children danced the story of the stolen generation for us. They also asked us to say a few words and invited us to share the Beatitude postures. We spent three days exploring spiritual formation practices with a group of young leaders who are working to reconcile the tension between their Christian and Aboriginal identities. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Over meals and late night talks these leaders were kind enough to teach us about what life is like for their people. Early European settlers thought Aboriginals were animal rather than human and Australian first peoples were not granted citizenship until 1967. Many children were taken from their parents and forced into adoptions and boarding schools. Aboriginal people are genetically predisposed to eat “bush foods” and a Western diet has led to chronic poor health and disease. Because of this, one young woman in our group has kidney disease, is on dialysis and desperately needs a kidney transplant to stay alive. As we traveled around Adelaide together, I noticed how uncomfortable the group felt under the suspicious gaze of dominant culture folks at malls, parks and stores. 

“We don’t tell you these things to make you feel guilty,” the young elder said. “But now that you know, we are responsible for creating a better future together." 

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On the second day of the retreat we talked about the invitation to lament, to grieve what’s broken in the world and inside of us, and wait for Divine comfort. We went to an ancestral mourning site, a spring along the coast, and Shawn told us a traditional story about how these seven springs were formed by the tears of a grieving uncle. 

“We are always mourning,” said one participant, “So many of our people are sick or dying. Every week we go to hospital or a funeral.”  

I told them I wished I could trade some of my privilege and comfort for their pain. We explored the way of lament in the life of Jesus (“My God, my God why have you forsaken me”) and in the ancient Psalms (Awake, Lord! Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?) And then we spent an hour in silence near the spring. Afterward I invited anyone who wished to share a poem or reflection. This is what I wrote:

I try to imagine what it might have been like
to be among the first peoples
living here sixty thousand years ago.
Before civilization as we know it, 
before nation states and multi national corporations. 

It's easy for me to romanticize a more earth based and communal way of life. 
Hunting and gathering our daily bread and sharing with one another. 
Creator has left a small remnant to haunt us, 
reminding us of a way of being
largely destroyed and replaced
by a fundamentally different relationship to land— 
as something to be used up and exploited, 
and people as obstacles and annoyances
to us getting what we want. 

It's time for the oppressors to mourn
and the oppressed to be comforted. 
For old and forgotten stories to be told, 
for sacred lands to be protected, 
for monuments and holidays to be dismantled, 
for rights and promises to be resurrected. 

My life is built on broken treaties, 
on blood stained ground where the bones of fifty million bison lay buried. 
We've asked the few to carry the sorrows of the many. 
They go to the hospitals and funerals parlors and prisons, 
so we can sit in CBD offices, airplanes and bungalows by the beach. 

But our future is together, 
and I'm hoping that an old story
about tears giving birth to a fresh water spring
becomes a present reality for my sisters and brothers
who have already spent too many days in morning.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:


*When you look at the world, what breaks your heart? What do you see that grieves you, and makes you sad?

*What about you? What's broken in you? Where do you feel loneliness, sadness, disappointment, or pain? Where do you long for comfort? 


PRACTICE:


If we have the courage to name and sit with our pain, we may experience solace. This week, take time to sit with what breaks your heart. Try writing a prayer or poem of lament. (Adapted from The Ninefold Path by Mark Scandrette and Danielle Welch). 
 

WHAT'S AHEAD THIS SPRING:

  • Thriving Family events in Miami (April 28, 29)
  • Ninefold Path events in the U.K. (May 4-6, 8,11, 13)
  • Personality and growth training event for Youth workers (May 14)
  • Thriving Family retreat in New York (June 8-10)
  • Mark is working with a team and training chaplains to develop a spiritual formation path for men in the recovery program at the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, CA.
  • Mark will be teaching a Fuller Seminary doctoral course on Practicing the Way of Jesus in October. See course description