Comparatively Speaking


Using our own yardstick—instead of our neighbor’s—to determine personal progress.

“Yesterday morning I was in a great mood when I left to go visiting teaching, but I came home devastated,” Mary Ann confided to her friend. “Andria’s house was spotless. Her children were so polite they seemed almost unreal. And Andria told me she has her children’s birthday parties planned for the next three years. I felt so inadequate when I came home to dirty breakfast dishes and unmade beds that I hollered at my kids and cried for an hour. I’m asking that Andria be put on someone else’s route. I can’t handle having her on mine.”

“Did you notice the Jacksons are driving another new car?” Jim asked his wife. “That’s their second new car in less than three years. I don’t how that guy does it, but he sure knows how to make money. Boy, does he make me feel like a failure. We haven’t had a new car for eight years.”

“My sister-in-law has an unbelievable book of remembrance,” sighed Michelle. “She’s amazingly artistic and it rubs off on everything she touches. When I saw her book, I put my own away and vowed never to take it down again.”

Such feelings of inadequacy, discouragement, and even jealousy are unfortunately common to many of us when we compare ourselves to others. Yet it’s difficult not to compare—and too often as we do, we feel we are lacking. We respond with: “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be like that?” or “He has all the luck. It just isn’t fair.” We may even feel guilty that we aren’t doing more because so-and-so seems to be doing so much. Sometimes we adopt the “why try?” attitude: “I could never do as well, so why try?”

Then there are friends and relatives who play the well-known “equalizing game” to comfort us. “Yes, but …” they say.

“Yes, but Andria has only three children, and you have four, and yours are closer together,” Mary Ann’s friend says to comfort her. “Besides,” she adds, “Andria probably knew you were coming.”

“Yes, but you spend much more time in church service,” Jim’s wife says, “You just don’t have time to concentrate on making money.”

“Yes, but you’re so good at baking bread and sewing, and you have so many other talents,” Michelle’s friend assures her.

And sometimes we even try to comfort ourselves. “Yes, but I have a bigger house to care for and I get frustrated more easily.”

How sad that rarely do we hear such words as “Yes, isn’t it wonderful that Andria has so much talent in home management,” or “Yes, isn’t he a financial genius,” or “Yes, she does beautiful work.”

The danger in equalizing comes when we attempt to find fault with others in order to “compensate” for all the positive things about them. “Yes,” we think, “Peggy Perfect does accomplish a lot. She is beautiful, charming, and talented. But she must not be a good mother. There must be something wrong with her.” Sometimes we are so excited when we do find something wrong with a “perfect” person that we can’t wait to spread the word.

And yet, many things we commonly say to comfort one another are not invalid, but true.

Situations are different. We live in different homes and have different backgrounds and different family situations. Even situations that seem similar on the surface generally have differences. Norma prided herself on being a good shopper and was dismayed when her neighbor Ann, who had the same number of children of similar ages, mentioned the amount of her monthly food bill. To Norma’s amazement it was much less than her own monthly food bill. She automatically assumed, like so many of us do, that the fault was hers. Immediately she began trying to figure out what she was doing wrong and why there was such a difference. She tried to see where she could economize and cut back more on luxuries.

Finally, Norma reanalyzed, then laughed at herself because of something she had forgotten. The answer was simple. Ann’s husband traveled and never ate at home during the week. Norma realized that she had been unnecessarily hard on herself when the difference was purely situational.

We usually judge others when they are at their best and ourselves when we are at our worst. Bill was quite surprised when he stopped by the Beckstead home and saw Tom dressed in mechanic’s garb and covered with grease. The Beckstead’s three-year-old was crying and the teenager had the television blaring. The house was slightly cluttered, and Sister Beckstead had curlers in her hair.

Without criticizing or judging, Bill learned an important lesson about comparing. “I had seen Tom only in church settings,” he reflected, “and because he always looked immaculately groomed and very well-dressed, somehow I pictured his life to be perfectly controlled and void of everyday human problems. Seeing him in a home setting was somehow comforting. I still admire him a great deal—he certainly hasn’t diminished any in my admiration. But it’s nice to know we are more alike than I had thought we were. Now I wonder how others at church perceive me?”

It is much easier to recognize attributes and successes in others than in ourselves. “My special talent is so buried I’d have to dig to China to find it,” Audrey complained to her friend Linda. Linda looked amazed. “Are you kidding? You’re a natural leader. You inspire others to do their best. You’re well organized, yet you make people feel good about themselves and not guilty. If that’s not talent, I don’t know what is!”

It seems the adversary does his best work when he convinces people to concentrate on what they don’t do or don’t have, rather than on what they can do and do have. We each have special gifts and blessings. The trick is realizing what they are and acknowledging them.

Yes, the points we commonly make when we comfort each other are often valid, but there are additional points we usually neglect, and may even undermine, in our attempts to “balance the scales.”

We really aren’t here to compete with each other at all. Competition is fun in parlor games and sports events where we either win or lose. But in life each human being is a potential winner. Another’s “winning” does not automatically result in our “losing.” And if we measure our progress or base worth on being equal or ahead of someone else, we will be like the talented young writer who gave up his art because “everything’s already been said better than I could ever say it.” Great works of literature, art, and music would not have been produced if others had taken such an attitude.

Heavenly Father is in the best position to help us measure our worth and progress. Drawing closer to him through temple attendance and scripture study, and listening to his word through blessings and sincere prayer can lead us to a divine and pure awareness of self. When Janice found herself feeling guilty and frustrated at her inability to meet the expectations she had placed on herself and those she felt others placed on her, she sought Heavenly Father’s help. “Gradually as I drew closer to him,” she said, “I realized how superficial many of my expectations had been, and that I simply did not need to be perfect in every talent and every area that others excelled in. Drawing closer to him led me to an uncluttered perception of what was expected of me and an awareness of my intrinsic worth and potential as his daughter. My frustrations dissipated into a feeling of peace and harmony.”

The only competing we need to do is with ourselves. Although we don’t know all the reasons why we have differences in degrees of talents or attributes, the important thing to understand is that we are individuals moving along our own individual roads. When we stop competing with others, we can actually increase our progress. We won’t be so discouraged—and we will be able to be more productive. We can try to be better than we were yesterday, last week, last month, or last year.

Melanie learned this important point. “As I grew up I was always looking at my older sister who could play the piano beautifully, sing, dance, paint, write, and draw. I kept trying to think of something she didn’t do that I could excel in. But because she did so much, I never thought of anything. So I just didn’t try.

“I was married and had two children when I began analyzing my feelings and discouragement at my lack of talents. I had always wanted to play the piano, but I had never wanted to take lessons because my sister played so well. Finally one day it hit me. Why should it matter that Jean plays piano well? What difference should that make? If I want to play, then I should go ahead and play because I want to learn.

“So I did. At first it bothered me that I was working on simple tunes while Jean was learning heavy classical pieces. But soon my enjoyment of music overcame that. Maybe I don’t play as well as my sister, and maybe I never will, but it matters less every day as I find fulfillment in my music. I’m so glad I finally stopped letting somebody else’s accomplishments slow my own progress.”

The message in the parable of the talents is clear. What we are given is not as important as what we do with it. The servants who were given five and two talents were both commended because they had built on what they had. The servant who was rebuked was the one who buried the talent given him. (See Matt. 25:14–30.)

Our lives can be enriched as we learn to appreciate the successes and good qualities in the lives of others. It’s easy to think of those who lived in the past—the great artists, writers, scientists, musicians, philosophers, and benevolent souls—as positive contributors to our lives. But we deal daily with “ordinary” people whose talents and skills aid us, whose gifts of goodness inspire us. As we learn to compete only with ourselves, we may reach a higher, more Christlike appreciation for the accomplishments and attributes of others. Negative feelings can dissipate as we move along our own roads. We can learn to rejoice at excellence, no matter whose it is. We can feel joy at everyone’s progression—including our own.

When Carolyn attended an art show, she felt jealous of the work one of her friends had done. Then Carolyn thought, “Why should I be feeling this way? I’m lucky that Lynette has this talent to share, and I should feel grateful and inspired that she’s gone to the effort of expressing it.”

Working together, uplifting, and encouraging each other makes everyone’s road to progress easier and more joyful. Although we are traveling on different roads, we can still plug for the other guy on his road. People can sense when we’re on their side, when we genuinely love them and want them to succeed. And in doing that, we are in no means thwarting our own progress. In fact, our view of the road is clearer. President Spencer W. Kimball has reminded us that losing ourselves is one of the best ways of “finding” ourselves:

“When we are engaged in the service of our fellowmen,” he said, “not only do our deeds assist them, but we put our own problems in a fresher perspective. When we concern ourselves more with others; there is less time to be concerned with ourselves. In the midst of the miracle of serving, there is the promise of Jesus, that by losing ourselves, we find ourselves. (See Matt. 10:39.)

“Not only do we ‘find’ ourselves in terms of acknowledging guidance in our lives, but the more we serve our fellowmen in appropriate ways, the more substance there is to our souls. We become significant individuals as we serve others. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!” (Ensign, Dec. 1974, p. 2.)

When he was asked whether he was born with his outstanding talent in teaching, Jim smiled. “Hardly,” he said. “I couldn’t seem to overcome my fear at first and had a terrible time expressing myself. It wasn’t until I stopped thinking about myself and began thinking and praying about how I could help my class—how I could encourage them and help motivate them to reach their potential—that I became a better teacher.” As Jim lost himself, he found himself.

And how uplifting it was recently to hear two Relief Society sisters talking after one had given her first lesson, a particularly inspiring one. “And you said you couldn’t do it! I’ve never been more involved in a more inspirational lesson.”

“How could I not do it with your face beaming encouragement at me,” said the first. “Thanks, friend. You’re what’s known as an answer to prayer.”

What greater service can we render than encouraging others? And as we believe in others, encourage them, and rejoice in their progress, we will find it easier to accomplish and progress ourselves. In doing so, we will emulate the Savior, who sought to help others find joy and success in life. And while he was helping others and helping us, he too was progressing towards his high potential. (See D&C 93: 12–14.)

[illustration] Illustrated by Parry Merkley

Anya Bateman, mother of four, teaches Sunday School in her Salt Lake City ward.