I don’t recall exactly when I first stumbled upon this wonderful Theodore Roosevelt quote in an old library book.
What I do remember is the bizarre thought-process that followed it, chasing away all the good.
At first, the wisdom of these words hit me with a jolt, making me gasp. In a flash, everything was clear. I saw things I hadn’t seen. When we compare ourselves to others, everyone loses. It rips away our joy and worse, we give our consent. It was a lightbulb moment.
So far so good.
But I couldn’t stop there. Oh no, I couldn’t stop at plain old epiphany moments. That would be far too straightforward. I liked it so much I wondered if I could maybe put the quote up on my wall to remind myself daily.
All good still.
But then I began to wonder what that would look like and, as if in slow motion, the whole thing began to unravel, my thoughts and plans spiralling out of control.
Should it match my décor or stand out? Would it be a poster? A framed print? I had obviously first seen the quote simply in Times New Roman in a library book - plain black text on a buff white page. It smelt of old paper and looked pretty run of the mill to be honest. Then I noticed it was also in one of my old craft magazines as a pull-out poster. Maybe I could just stick that up on the wall?
I wanted more. I wanted something special, unique. Lots of people might put this quote on their wall, but I would have the best one.
Yes. You read that right. What I wanted was… the BEST ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ poster!
The irony of this was lost on me for a full five minutes as I planned and designed how lovely it would look. It had to be a one-off: stylish but not too cutesy. Hilariously, without realising I was doing it, I burrowed further into this hole of one-upmanship, losing sight of all absurdity as I planned the most exquisite poster ever. People would see it and not only sense my reflected wisdom but also be struck by the visual beauty of the as yet undecided artwork.
And then, with a moment of long overdue clarity, the realisation of irony kicked me out of my stupor.
I had effectively taken an inspirational quote about not comparing ourselves to others and turned it into some competitive task to make myself feel better than them.
Except of course, when we do these things it’s never really because we think we’re better than others.
It’s because we feel like who we are is already lacking in some way and that if we can just ‘be a bit better’ in this one thing, then maybe the overall ‘score’ will even out and we’ll have our space in this world.
We think it might make up for the fact that our career wasn’t quite what we’d dreamed, not as successful or exciting, for being overlooked, for not having parented exactly as we thought we would, for not being as good a friend or as popular or as ‘in the thick of it’ in the community or at church as we once imagined we’d be. It might make up for how we are not always the perfect beacon of hope to others. How sometimes, when we planned to show kindness, a rush of anger burst out instead, ruining everything, spoiling this idea of the person we thought we were.
We think if we can just get this one thing right, if we can show others that, it might make up for all the ways we’ve fallen short.
But perhaps that’s why we have grace. Perhaps that’s why God meets us exactly where we are - in the mess and the not measuring up – and says, ‘Just as you are is fine actually’.
I stopped still with this thought. Once I’d realised what I was doing, I could no longer begin to think about creating a bells and whistles version of the quote. I put the idea out of my head and got on with trying to simply follow its implied advice. I stored it up in my head and heart for those times when I fall foul to the comparison monster.
Recently it came to me again: the importance of these words, my embarrassing need to be reminded of them. And I felt it was still worth keeping such a reminder of it.
So now it sits humbly scribbled on a scrap of jotter paper.
Doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.