I could hear screaming through my headphones, so I took them off and I could hear the clear voices of a man and a woman arguing, very publicly, in the street below me. I work on the the third floor of an office that faces the street in a tourist town. My initial reaction was, “Who argues this loudly…in public? That’s embarrassing for them.” I often find this impulse nestled quietly behind the way that I move through the world. The need to determine who isn’t performing life quite as well as I am. I have a radar that is always working from the moment that I wake up, until the moment that I go to bed that is looking for people who are doing life just a little bit worse than I am.
What I paid much less attention to was the minor detail that I have also argued with my own wife in public. I don’t know a single couple who hasn’t managed to get into a fight about being lost on vacation. I could give a litany of excuses for these behaviors, but that would actually be missing the point.
Why wasn’t my initial reaction,
“Ugh, I’ve done that.”?
I think that, as a culture, we are trained to be addicted to this game.
Or phrased better by Nadia Boltz Weber “We are addicted to knowing who we are better than.”
We love bad people who are not us because they allow us a brief excuse to overlook our own shortcomings. We hate read all of the stuff that bad people are doing so that the same bad impulses hidden in us can feel more removed from us. It is easier to feel better than the people arguing on the street than it is to try to work through communication in my own marriage. The real value of figuring out who is last is solely for the benefit of the people who are not last.
One illustration of this impulse would be apps created with the idea of pitting friends against friends in a what is framed and marketed to be a playful motivational tool. The app might be a blast for the person in first or second, but what about the person who comes in dead last? Is it healthy if almost all personal decisions are framed in exclusively competitive terms? Should all of that information even be quantified and is the truth that the information provides as clear as 1st through 9th? What about the unmeasurable contributing factors? To love someone for extra credit points is to treat a human being as a means to an end. A love given to earn heaven can be less about love and more about getting credit. The beautiful human experience can be perverted by cold objectives especially when the objective appears on the surface to be irreproachably good. “You get 50 points for being a friend!” Is a truly horrifying proclamation on every level.
Honestly this kind of math is disturbing because I imagine that I am the sort of person who would come in last, and even more embarrassing, I would come in last while actually trying not to. I have no issue with trying to be healthy. I take up issue with having my healthiness measured against the healthiness of everyone else in a colorful chart because the comparison injures the very reason that I pursue health at all, which is for the joy that it adds to life. I can sleep better when I exercise and it helps to manage depression. Those things do not benefit from comparison, especially depression which thrives on negative comparison. I think that comparison, while it is the default human setting, is not something that brings about real, lasting change.
Once again, the example that I use is an example that I can personally and conveniently distance myself from. I have other dumb games to play on my phone that will tell me how I am winning at life compared to other people who have never had the resources or experiences that I have. If I don’t have the phone I have a home-ownership, if I don’t have the house I have a fulfilling and meaningful career. A whole life can be orchestrated around manufacturing excuses for ourselves that are built on platforms of quiet condemnation for the choices of others.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely want to be ranked as good so that I have definitive proof that I am important, but the older that I get, the more suspicious I get about this desire to be perceived as being uniquely ahead.
We act out the people that we wish we were so that we can hide the people we actually are from ourselves and everyone else. We act out “nice” so that people will buy the narrative that we, unlike the bickering couple on the street, have it all together. What if that truth is only partial, or even worse what if it is a complete fabrication? It’s one thing to be struggling to communicate in a relationship, it is another to be struggling to communicate while lying to yourself about what a great communicator you are. One of those roads will always lead to disaster while the other is just the route we accidentally end up on occasionally.
If I cannot confess both good and bad truths about myself, my only remaining choice is to hide them from myself and everyone else by playing down the failures and playing up the successes. The bigger the insecurity, the bigger the billboard of enforced positivity you need to manufacture to cover it.
If I play the comparison game for long enough, everyone else’s failure, everyone else’s worst day can become my own sick victory.
It is a world where all loss that is not my own personal loss somehow counts as an automatic win for me. You can live in that world, but the whole premise of the vampire is based upon a creature that used to be human reduced to subsisting upon the loss of others.
Just because I am doing better than someone who is obviously failing is not evidence that I am doing well.
The ability to observe sickness in another person doesn’t make me more healthy.
A quick judgement will not exempt me from future failures that feel both embarrassing and unmanageable. When we distance ourselves from failure, we lose the ability to be honest about life. Maybe more importantly we cut off our ability to feel any mercy for another person. While this might not mean much when a person is visibly doing well, it ultimately results in a lack of personal mercy down the road. You can only receive the mercy that you can admit that you need in the present. “The measure that you use will be measured to you.” A world where grace is only distributed to the deserving is a world without any grace at all. You cannot deserve something that is by its definition “unmerited”. You either accept the gift as free, or reject it because you don’t want to be perceived as needing any handouts. Grace is always working against shoddily constructed fictions of independence.
Jesus addressed this game in a stinging parable. A group of diligent workers show up first thing in the morning to do the hard work of a job through the heat of the day, later on some tired stragglers show up for the last hour or so of that same day. When the owner pays everyone the same agreed upon amount, the ones who showed up first start to throw a fit because they were paid the same amount as the ones who were last. Then the owner audaciously says that they can take what they agreed upon, followed by a cutting question to those who complain, “Or are you envious because I am generous?’” The ones who are in trouble in this parable are the ones who have clear ideas about what the owner is allowed to do with generosity. To be paid isn’t enough, they have to be paid more to prove that they are more valuable or more righteous.
It will make you lonely if you try to live a life that is always running the math on the number of good decisions that you have made in a competition with other people who do not have your incredibly specific set of life experiences. You can build a fictional reality in which you are the sum of all of your good choices and the homeless vet or immigrant isn’t a person so much as a collection of bad choices. It is really easy to discard a collection of bad choices, they just need to be shoveled out of the way so that the good person performance can continue uninterrupted.
I still attend church because I want to be in a place where people recite the Lord’s prayer and say words like “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When I am reciting the prayer on my own, I find myself always conveniently trying to forget that razor wire line. That one little line like a bullet through my heart. The words know more about me than I would like them to. They know about the couple on the street and my petty need to play a game where I am a fictitious winner of a contest I designed so that I could win. I don’t know why I find this comforting, it sounds horrible when I say it, but somehow the terrible truth is less exhausting than the idiot fiction that I spend the rest of the week trying to hide behind. When the bad stuff is exposed it has the strange potential of connecting me to people rather than alienating me from them. The weakness that I am willing to share, the failure that I can relate to can become a way of showing love to the struggle of another person. It does not excuse badness to speak about it honestly, it just allows for the bad to be just as true as the good. It is really hard to find a person behind an advertising campaign for purported goodness. It is easier to apologize when being wrong is more or less standard operating procedure. It is easier to forgive when I can apologize. If I don’t have to be better than everyone else I can just be a complicated and conflicted human being in need of help. I think that there is value in searching for peace inside that normalcy.
What does it look like to have compassion on your own short-comings? Has there ever been a time when someone else made one of your own struggles feel lighter? What did they say that made difficulty more bearable?
What are easy judgements that you make about other people? What do you do with your awareness of this?