A conversation with my partner and a news article published in my church’s email update prompted me to consider how we are tempted to compare things that actually we shouldn’t.
Take ability (or disability) as one such case in point. My partner uses a wheelchair, not because he is physically paralysed, but because he doesn’t always have the strength to lift his legs, or is intense pain, or has problems with balance and coordination, or often all three of these. Other wheelchair users, however, don’t experience high pain levels, are physically very strong and have very good coordination but instead are paralysed from the waist down.
Yet a significant percentage of people, including myself, my partner, and other wheelchair users, still do the ‘he can do such and such so why can’t she/you/I’ comparison. I understand the temptation – you look physically healthy but are sitting in a wheelchair. Your friend looks physically healthy but sits in a wheelchair. You know you are too sore and too weak to stand up. You know your friend cannot stand up. So far, so good – but to go from those observations to, ‘but my friend is able to go to the gym in his chair and use weights’, or ‘my friend needs hand controls on his car’, to assumptions that you should either be able to do the same exercise, or need the same adaptations, serves no purpose except for making you doubt yourself and your personal experience.
Another case is financial stability as a household and as a family. I’m not talking of obvious situations where a family has a high income and ‘money to burn’, or situations where dire poverty has driven a family to food bank use or something similar. Instead I mean families who make ends meet, who pay their bills, can keep the lights on, have enough food in the kitchen cupboards and petrol in the car each week.
It surely is tempting to see a family who is managing to keep going in a relative degree of financial comfort and assume that they are comfortably off and able to afford luxuries. ‘If they can afford to purchase insert-name-of-expensive-branded-food here, then surely they have enough money to give to our church roof appeal/give a donation towards a present for a co-worker/pay the requested fees for that college away weekend.’ It seems on the face of it to be a logical assumption.
But, just as with wheelchair use and personal ability, or lack thereof, financial ability is similarly personal and incomparable. A family may have to purchase that relatively expensive branded food because allergies render the cheaper alternatives impossible to eat. Or, they may just be particularly good at managing their money and have decided that good quality, relatively expensive food, is worth every penny and thus more important than college away weekends or donations to good causes.
Likewise the state of someone’s garden – just because a garden has weeds among the flowers and vegetables, it doesn’t mean that the gardener is lazy or the garden isn’t looked after – it may mean simply that the garden has only recently been wrestled from tall grasses or an overgrown plot and the soil is still full of millions upon millions of seedlings, and the gardener spends far longer tending his plot longer per week than the owner of that immaculately trimmed lawn and perfect borders just up the road.
I think it is a natural tendency of people to try and make comparisons and understand the things they observe and listen to in terms of their own experiences. And yes, some things can be compared – I’m not saying that comparison is impossible. But I think it is important to make the distinction between situations where comparison is actually useful and situations where it only appears useful upon cursory glance but in actual fact it is not.
We are all absolutely unique. The sum of our genetics and our experiences make us different from every single other person we will ever meet. We need to remember that just as our selves, our bodies, our personalities and our lives are incomparable with anyone else’s, our experiences and our actions are also incomparable except on a trivial level and to engage in ‘he can so I must’ exercises is futile.
Instead, celebrate your distinctiveness. Celebrate your ability, no matter what that may be. Celebrate the fact that you and your ability, be it physical, financial, or anything else, is completely incomparable.