lenten journal: living by comparison


Howard Thurman was my traveling companion on the train to work this morning, and he greeted me with these words:

It is small wonder that all religions that are ethically sensitive place a great emphasis upon the corrosive effects of pride upon the human spirit. . . . The most obvious basis for pride is in the act of comparing one’s deeds with the deeds of others, one’s achievements with the work of others. (Deep is the Hunger 67)

In the margin of the book I wrote, “pride is comparison,” so I would know where to return. His words reminded me of a quote I’ve seen attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, though I’ve never been able to find the actual source: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The reason I doubt the source, I suppose, is my image of Roosevelt from studying history doesn’t necessarily fit those words, but I’m willing to be surprised. I think I would love to discover a different side to him.

One of the standard definitions English teachers give for metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things. Teddy makes me want to rethink that as well. A good metaphor creates a relationship between two things or ideas, rather than setting them at odds with each other. It’s informative, not evaluative. And, yes, there can be good metaphors:

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. (Pablo Picasso);

and bad ones:

He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River. (A high school student

The point of a metaphor is to draw a connection, to illustrate; comparison creates a hierarchy, a ranking—and the comparer usually puts themselves on top in the exchange. Thurman calls it sin; Teddy labels it as joyless. And yet, it seems, it is our national pastime. In most any arena, we, as Americans, feel compelled to keep reminding everyone that we are Number One, that we are the greatest nation in the history of the world, that we are the ones who keep the world safe, and we do it relentlessly. Joylessly, too. And I keep wondering why it is necessary in the first place. It’s not an attractive trait.

Thurman references the Jesus’ parable about the two men who came into the Temple to pray. One, a poor man, knelt and prayed silently. The other, a religious leader, prayed aloud, “God, thank you that you didn’t make me like all these other people.” He sounds American to me.

When we first moved to Boston in 1990 to plant a church (a spectacular failure!), I got a job at the Blockbuster Video store in our Charlestown neighborhood. One of things I enjoyed about my job was talking to customers who didn’t have their mind made up and offering some smaller movies they might not have known about, based on our conversation. One night, I asked a woman if she needed help and she replied, “I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”

How did Thurman put it: the corrosive effects of pride on the human spirit. The incidental contact was painful for me and, I think, joyless for her. For both of us. And I never got to tell her what a great movie The Year of Living Dangerously was.

I know. I’m rambling. I think it’s because me heart hurts in ways I cannot voice when I look at who we are, and we are becoming, as a nation. We have made comparison a way of life at most every level. We are a joyless people. A frightened people. A prideful people. I realize those are broad generalizations, which means, of course, I’m not describing everyone. But a quick trip through news sites and social media make it hard not to see that comparison is our public persona, which means we must tell the small stories of connection that remind us, like a good metaphor, of how we go together.



  1. Oh those small stories of connection are singular joys, for sure! You may think you are rambling….but you are spot on!

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