I have a superpower. I discovered it about four years ago. I have always been a fan of superheroes whether in the comics or the movies. As I have had kids, this has been a great love of theirs too, so we are constantly surrounded by the idea of ordinary people who discover they have a super gift. That is the problem, though. My superpower is not necessarily a gift. It only happens in one general location and it is not really that beneficial. You see, my superpower is that, at church, most kids under the age of four will mistake me for their dad. Yeah . . . that’s my power. I’ll be standing in the lobby and some small child will walk up to me and either grab my leg until they look up and discover that I am not, in fact, their dad. At that point they will either scream, stand frozen in fear, or run away. I’ve gotten so accustomed to it that as I see a small child approaching I stiff-arm them to avoid the whole scenario or yell out proactively “I’m not your dad.” Of course, this can have the exact same effect.
I thought a lot about it and I think I have figured out the source of this super power. What’s more, it’s not necessarily a superpower that is unique to me. You see, much like Samson the source of my superpower is my hair . . . or lack of. Along with my closely shaved beard and my choice of eyewear. Several years ago I started losing my hair or, more truthfully, it became more noticeable that my hair was exiting my head at an alarming rate. When explaining that I had lost my hair, my son once asked, “Where did it go?” That remains a mystery. At any rate, since it became more noticeable I decided to shave my head. I also decided to grow a beard to balance things out a bit. Because the normally manly beard would cause much itching and difficulty sleeping, I decided to keep it very closely cropped. So I have a perpetual three or four days of stubble along with a shaved head and some stylish (if I may say so) glasses. This, as it seems, is a very common, popular look for a man of my age. So in a certain developmental stage for kids, I look like every other dad because of these three features.
Why is this the case you may ask? Well, it’s actually the very thing that can also cause much sadness and discontent in our adult lives. This thing is COMPARISON.
Some call comparison a trap, but I believe it is actually a gift that God has given us. Like anything, if we use this gift for good it can be something that allows our lives to be healthy and special. However, if we allow comparison to use us, we can find ourselves crippled by the image of how much better other people’s lives are than our own. This is especially true when we talk about Facebook and other social media. When comparison is in play, it can always seem that the lives of others are brighter, happier, filled with better food, and accompanied by perfect families. This is not true, of course, but it’s comparison that allows us to get stuck.
God gave us an incredible gift in His design. Many animals are born and then go off to live adult lives almost immediately from birth. What allows them to do this is a sense of instinct or programmed knowledge in their DNA. They know where they must go and how they must find food and other essentials for survival from the first minute they breathe. Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow them to experience connection in a family. Fortunately, for us, God gave us families. He gave us the ability to grow and to learn in the safety of a family so that that family could shape our development for the future. To do this, however, we were born as somewhat of a clean slate. Think about this, we have to learn to speak, to walk, to interact with other people, and a whole host of other things that we take for granted every day. I was amazed when my sons were born just how frail and fragile they were. They needed me for everything. This wasn’t just because they were the size of my shoe. This was because they were also born without knowing how to do anything for themselves. The way that we learn to become adults from these fragile balls of nothingness is through the gift of comparison.
Since all data in the beginning is brand new we create a way of remembering the things that we come in contact with for the first time. For instance, when we were young we saw a dog and our mom or dad said, “Doggy.” We then created a box in our head labeled doggy that has the description, “animal with four legs.” Then we saw a cow and said, “Doggy.” Our parent laughed and said, “No, that’s a cow.” We then broke that first box into two boxes. Now we have a second box that is labeled cow, which included the same description as the first, but now had an extra description of “big” that made it distinct. Then we saw a horse and said, “Cow.” From there the cycle continued until we began to learn about the world around us. We made little boxes that had descriptions that we could access with our brain upon seeing them later.
As we got a little bit older, maybe five or six, we started to create another system of boxes for emotions and social interactions. Most of us who have had small kids, at one point had your child turn to you, point to someone around them, and comment on their emotional state. They may have said, “They’re sad” or “Are they sad?” Sometimes it was true; sometimes it wasn’t. But, we usually either confirmed or gently corrected the emotion that was taking place at the time. In this way, they created their boxes. We even create boxes about ourselves. These include identity. It’s why kids of a certain age respond so favorably to praise. They eat up, “You’re so fast” or “You’re so smart!” because it fills those boxes, and by doing so allows them to have a sense of the known.
When we become teenagers we start testing all these boxes. It’s why teenagers are often so cantankerous. They’re finding out that many of their boxes weren’t what they thought they were and that there are still other boxes in the gray areas that can be problematic. Further still, they’re realizing that they can’t always trust the boxes that are labeled by others. Re-analyzing everything you’ve ever known can be tiring. Further still, their bodies are changing at such an increased rate that these boxes sometimes become superfluous just about the time they are finally created. For instance, their box labeled, “The things I like to play with most” often becomes unused just when it was finally completed.
That brings us to our adulthood. As adults, we need to continue to make these boxes. It’s important that they continue to expand rather than limit our experiences. Anytime that something can’t grow into a new box, but stays stuck in the original box, we find ourselves stagnated and rigid. This is what creates an inability to accept change. The world is changing constantly whether we are able to keep up with it in terms of our learning and filing system or not. Comparison allows us to grow in both the depth and width of our experience and understanding. When we use it, we can transcend barriers and think of things that have never even been thought of before.
On the other hand, if comparison takes hold of us then the opposite is true. We begin to make sense of our lives based on these boxes. Our life is either happy or sad based on the sometimes immature description of the box. This is further exasperated when we allow outside things to label our boxes or when we adopt other’s boxes instead of creating our own. For instance, allowing a social construct of what someone looks like under the box labeled, “beautiful” can have very damaging effects. If socially, people say the beautiful box includes a certain weight or height or skin tone, this can greatly limit our perception of what is beautiful. If we don’t have that certain weight or height or skin tone then we can think that we are ugly simply based on the box that has been created by others. The same is true in terms of the box labeled “happy” or “successful” or “good.” If these boxes are limited and based on what others think, they can be almost crippling.
There’s no easier way to let the comparison take over your life than the use of social media. Social media is simply a tool. In my opinion, a marvelous tool that can bring great good and connection to the world. However, if we allow comparison to be the filter we use, this tool can be soul crushing.
So what do we do? As we move from season to season and one holiday to the next how do we keep this gift of comparison from taking over our lives? Well, there are three things that I think will be great to remember:
Never stop making new boxes.
It’s important to continue to expand your experiences and the things that you hold as “a given.” Scientists are telling us that one of the things that keeps a brain healthy and young is its elasticity. This is the ability to remain flexible rather than rigid. This is certainly true when we’re expanding our understanding and knowledge of things as we create boxes of comparison.
Make sure you’re using comparison to grow rather than letting it control you.
This has already been explained above but simply put, make sure it’s the tool you use rather than the filter you see the world through.
Understand that you’re not everyone.
You were born a blank slate. Comparison has allowed you to understand the world, yourself, and how you act in it. But just as this is true for you, it is also true for everyone else in the world. Others may have had different experiences and create different looking boxes than your own. Just because you think one thing doesn’t mean that everybody thinks the exact same way. Leave room for your boxes to be incomplete or one-sided. Make time to connect with others and explore the way they see the world and themselves. Often you will find that comparison makes it completely impossible to even approach something like this.
Enjoy social interactions. Enjoy growing and learning and exposing yourself to new things. Enjoy going on social media and seeing how others live their lives. Just make sure that you remember that your life is your own and that just because someone else’s life may look one way doesn’t have any bearing on your own. You are who you are regardless of whose house is bigger or whose family smiles more or who has access to more delicious food. God made you the way He made you so go and grow into the best YOU, you can be.