Dare to Compare

Michael O’Connor [1]

As humans, we have an innate ability and inalienable right to compare.  We do it all the time, whether we like to admit it or not.  Phillies or Yankees.  Toilet paper over or under.  Spiderman or Batman.  The list goes on.

When I was teaching in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), communities would jokingly tease one another about whose city and community house was most desirable, one (the Mobile house) even going so far as to claim themselves “the BPIA – Best Place in ACE.”  Even service trips and retreats are not excluded from this natural inclination.  Student groups from varying Appalachian service sites return to campus claiming that their trip was “the best” and that their group is “the closest,” daring other students or groups to even try to state otherwise.

And I don’t pretend to be above this.  I have been caught up in the honeymoon phase, as well, swelling with pride for my own Appalachia group or claiming that Birmingham and Philadelphia are “the realest” cities in the country.  While some comparing is harmless, and can actually be a means to drum up support or pride for one’s own team, city, or organization, other forms are not as helpful.

Again, aspects of comparing are not always bad.  Being able to compare is actually a great gift.  It allows for us to reflect back on our experiences and see where grace has entered into our lives through the presence of others and God.  When we take the time to be aware of the goodness brought into our lives by people, places, or experiences, we are better able to grow from them.  When we ponder the challenges that we have faced, we are better able to respond to them in the future.

But problems can occur when comparing leads to a lack of openness and awareness.  We have to be careful when celebration of an experience, brought about by comparing, causes us to prematurely and unfairly critique others or new opportunities.  Equally dangerous, we can essentially set ourselves up to be constantly disappointed in the future.  We enter new experiences – service, social, academic, communal – with high expectations.  We say to ourselves, and sometimes even to individuals we meet in these new circles, “My last group/experience was so incredible.  How can this ever hope to compare?”  Not only does this continue to prevent us from entering more fully into new experiences, it also hurts those around us, letting them know very quickly where they stand and how much they have to live up to.

Boston Downtown Skyline By Nelson48 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

I will face this challenge again in three short weeks.  At that time, I will move up to Boston, start my life in a new city, at a new university, in a new doctoral program, with new housemates, and with new folks all around me.  I will not only carry my clothes and books in my baggage (lots and lots of books), but also all of my past memories from previous experiences and the expectations that proceed from them.  I will be comparing incessantly.

Here is what I hope and pray for myself, and also what I hope and pray for you, reader, whenever you find yourself in a new situation and ready to compare:  That we may be grateful for the many gifts encountered in previous experiences.  That we may learn from past challenges, stumblings, lessons, and advice.  That we may be open to others and their experiences and celebrate their uniqueness and gifts, as well.  That we may harness the love from our past to embrace our present and to prepare the way for our future.  That we may compare in a way that increases our awareness of love and happiness, instead of setting ourselves up for future disappointment.  And that we may believe that we can find love and hope again in new situations with new people in new places.

Our comparing can be a way to glorify God and others.  We simply have to allow it to do so.

[1] Michael O’Connor recently concluded his time on staff with the Alliance for Catholic Education at Saint Joseph’s University (ACESJU), a post-graduate teaching fellows program that serves urban Catholic schools in Philadelphia, and is preparing to begin doctoral studies in Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College in Fall 2012.

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