Have you ever heard the saying, “Comparison is the devil’s poison”? I’ve found it to be true. If I judge myself better than the other, I run the risk of pride, yet if I judge myself to be worse off, I run the risk of self-pity and jealousy. Lose-lose. However, there are some things that are so in-your-face that you can’t help but compare, the stark contrast between your life and another’s can be so intense that one can’t help but to think, “What if I were in their shoes?”
As a counselor at a transitional homeless shelter, I find myself in this predicament on a daily basis. The good news is that it has cultivated a deep gratitude within my heart, for though my suffering is real and I can’t deny the existence of my own problems, I can look at my life objectively, see the safety and comfort within it, not to mention the amazing people and experiences, and thank God for all he has given me. Rather than this recognition that I am far better off than basically all of my clients pointing me towards pride, it’s fostered within me a questioning spirit, and even a slight anger, at the clear injustice of it all. Though all that I have is a gift, why didn’t others get the same?
Though we are all human, created by God innately good with a blueprint stamped within our souls of what leads to happiness and flourishing, it seems that we don’t all get the same chance to pursue this goodness and live a happy life. We don’t all begin at the same starting gate, and even if we do, it seems that some get time in the penalty box along the way.
Some people are born with two parents eagerly anticipating their arrival with a freshly painted nursery and a savings accounting already accumulating interest. Others are a “mistake” that are begrudgingly looked after. Some people’s visions are veiled by trauma, others are relatively sheltered.
Searching for Fairness
The only way that some have learned to cope is through addiction and substance abuse, others have never even found themselves in the situation where drugs were an option. As hard as it is for me to walk into the environment of the homeless shelter day after day, at the end of the day, I also get to walk out…and blast the music in my car (and maybe even swing by Starbucks) on the way to my safe and comfortable home, while for my clients, that shelter is their home. To use a classic line from my childhood that I’d often blurt out when my older sisters got to do something I didn’t—“it’s just not fair.”
Scaling the situation back, I think that search for fairness is applicable to all of our lives. Even though we know we probably shouldn’t, we do compare. We look at one another’s lives, see where others are exceling vs. where we are lacking, and bemoan the injustice of it all. Whether it’s a relationship status, number or gender of children, job promotions, you name it! We each have an area of life that seems to be deficient, regardless of whether that deficiency is merely perceived or actual.
We want life to be fair, but it just isn’t. A practical response to that reality is to suck it up, be thankful for what you do have, accept what you don’t, and work hard for the things in the middle. But what about the bigger picture? What about morality? If we are all to be judged on the lives we lived, how does fairness, or lack thereof, play into our salvation?
We All Make Choices
Questioning the unfairness of life and how it pertains to our redemption is a thought that keeps me awake most nights. Though I’m only a lowly-counselor and by no means in a position to judge the morality of other’s lives, I’m struck by the fact that it is simply easier for some people to adhere to truth than it is for others. Yes, we all make choices and are accountable for those choices, but some people objectively have the odds stacked in their favor while others don’t. With that in mind, what’s the appropriate response?
When I have clients confide in me that they like to get high and hook up, I know from the truths of my faith and common sense that such a lifestyle does not lead towards their happiness. But I can also look at their life situation and think, “yeah, I’d might do that too.” Simultaneous to that thought, I fear that I am developing a relativistic attitude, in which case, why adhere to my faith at all? Why not just do what provides some much-needed relief? Surely God understands?
Navigating Understanding and Condoning
I have come across two distinctions to help me navigate these murky waters of life. The first is between understanding and condoning. While it’s true that in many cases aberrant human behavior is understandable (again, if in similar situations, I’d probably do that too, whatever “that” is), I can still recognize that it isn’t good or healthy. For the person to truly heal that behavior, while so understandable, needs to change. Secondly, and more importantly, is the reminder that I’m not the judge. God is. And the amazing part is, he looks at us holistically and takes everything into account—our temperament and personality, our God-given level of resilience, where we were at when we made the choices we did, all of our life-experiences, and which gate we started off at.
As St. Therese of Lisieux says, “God’s justice is his mercy.” Our God is a God of understanding—understanding our lives and our circumstances even better than we do, and his justice, he will show each of us his mercy. Now if that’s not fair, I don’t know what is.