It was 26th President Theodore Roosevelt who said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I think most of us know the truth of Roosevelt’s statement. We know that looking around at what others have and weighing it in a balance against our own lives is a terrible idea that almost always ends badly. But we still do it. Why? Why is it human nature to take others’ joy and turn it into our own misery?
When I was a special education teacher, I learned a valuable lesson about human behavior (many, actually, but this is one). When we want to stop an unwanted behavior, it isn’t enough to just say, “Don’t do that anymore!” If we are serious about ending unhealthy behavior, we must provide people with a healthy replacement behavior. Want your student to stop incessantly fiddling with their pen? Give him silly putty. Want to stop constantly comparing your lives to those of your friends/people in your newsfeed/neighbors/boss/etc? You’ve got to replace it with something else.
Here’s what I’ve found- if we practice gratitude, the comparison thief is MUCH less likely to come around. Where there is true thankfulness, there is little room for comparing. I say this as one who has learned this the hard way- over and over and over again. Depending on where I am in life, I envy people different things. Twelve years ago when my husband and I were reeling after 2 miscarriages and wondering if we would ever have children, I could not look my pregnant friends in the eye without feeling envious. During times when we’ve struggled financially, I’ve looked with disdain as those around us bought new cars and clothes while we ate Ramen noodles. Sometimes it’s as simple as begrudging my Facebook friends their Disney trip while I sit at home doing laundry. Whatever the context, it’s poisonous and soul-shrinking. A serious joy-stealer.
But, I’m slowly learning that “As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. Joy is always possible. Whenever, meaning-now; wherever, meaning- here.” (One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp) So, when the comparison thief starts to rear its awful head, I take a step back and start writing down things I’m thankful for. Like, actually making a list with pen & paper. Every morning. Or evening. Or whenever. I write things like, “The smell of coffee in the morning” and “My kids reading with each other”. Sometimes I start a bit begrudgingly- “The house is finally quiet for the first time today.” But even in that, I see that there is something to be grateful for! I have been ending each night praying that God would wake me up with thoughts of gratitude instead of resentment…and it’s actually worked. And when I am serious about practicing gratitude, I have a beautiful, positive alternative to the unwanted behavior of comparison.
It’s an uphill battle, but it is so worth the struggle. Because gratitude is the bringer of joy, not the thief of it. Life is hard. There is pain and darkness and ugliness within and without. But there is also so, so much to be thankful for. And that’s the blessing.