It is probably safe to say that humans regularly compare themselves with one another. We wonder, for example, if we are as happy, good looking, physically fit, smart, or successful as those around us. We’ve likely been doing this since the beginning of our existence. Yet, it seems in our time we have endless opportunities to compare ourselves with others.
One obvious place we see this is social media. The early Instagram influencer Tavi Gevinson is a case in point. In a 2019 piece for New York Magazine, she writes, “Who would I be without Instagram? The fact that it’s impossible to parse its exact influence on me indicates that it runs deep.” While she seems to admit that her identity was wrapped up in her Instagram appearance, she later laments how it began to affect her. Comparing herself to others and competing with fellow influencers started to become all-consuming.
With Instagram, self-defining and self-worth-measuring spilled over into the rest of the day, eventually becoming my default mode. If I received conflicting views of my worth or, looking at other people’s accounts, disparate ideas about how to live, the influx of information could lead to a kind of panic spiral. I would keep scrolling as though the cure for how I felt was at the bottom of my feed.
We might say that Tavi Gevinson struggled with losing sight of a proper “horizon” for evaluating herself.
Horizons sometimes make me think of a kind of artistic work called a “relief.” Reliefs are often crafted from sheets of metal or panels of stone, consisting of a flat background against which various other figures, images, and scenes “stand out.” In nature, the horizon functions similarly. It is the background against which everything else stands out.
The idea of a horizon provides a great analogy for analyzing and evaluating things, especially in a moral way. Is something good? Is something bad? Well, it depends on the background assumptions you take for granted about what makes a thing good, or an action bad. The answers are not always clear in a black and white sense. Lollipops are good when viewed against the horizon of tastiness. But eating lollipops could be considered bad when viewed against the horizon of dental hygiene and diet. Maintaining a well-manicured lawn—often a quintessential American value in suburbia—is good considered against the horizon of contributing to the beauty of one’s neighborhood. But obsessing over one’s yard by competing for the best-looking lawn with one’s neighbors, when considered against the horizon that envy and jealousy breed hostility and overall poor mental health, is bad.
Consider mommy blogs as another example of a space for comparison and competitiveness. This time, the domain is parenting. Mommy blogs (where moms blog about their kids, home-making, family life, and more) are an easy place to see captivatingly curated images of the perfect kitchen, homeschooling space, or living room. There are also stories of moms whose kids are “making memories,” so just ignore that the house is a mess.
Parenting has long been one of those places in our lives where comparison and competitiveness are rampant. Of course, we should assume that parents just want to be good parents. But the horizon used to determine what constitutes “good” parenting is the troubling element behind the score-keeping that’s silently happening in the parenting world. Many parents feel the threat of judgement so deeply that they, like Tavi Gevinson, easily find themselves feeling lost and without direction (however frantically busy they might be).
Life in a pandemic offers other examples. On top of already feeling stress or grief, there seem to be people who are living their best life now (in quarantine), and their humble-bragging easily makes us feel guilty for being stressed, frustrated, lonely, angry, or filled with grief. They appear to have it all together, making us wonder, “what’s wrong with me?”
We can call them the quarantine over-achievers. There are all kinds of stories of people accomplishing seemingly remarkable feats despite lockdowns and dread. Huge projects that have been put off for months are suddenly getting done, all while working-from-home and acting as homeschooling teacher/parent. Others are proudly announcing how many masks they’ve sewn while simultaneously maintaining a strenuous workout routine (and losing weight) along with cooking three well-balanced meals per day for the whole family.
Over-achievers, even during normal times, appear to live pristine lives. We feel exhausted just reading about all they have done or seeing their perfect pictures, shining like trophies in the modern ecology of virtual showcases where curating our image and controlling perception is the key to a happy life based on the right amount of attention and affirmation.
Over-achievement, or at least the appearance of such, has moral value according to a certain horizon. The imperative of this moral horizon—the relief against which we evaluate our lives—is the demand to be interesting, to garner attention and affirmation. Just think of the way that the beer brand Dos Equis creates entertaining advertisements by subtly holding up the exemplar of the “most interesting man in the world.” We imbibe the message even if we don’t drink the beer. We look to others for approval all the time.
This can be healthy of course. Children need approval from their parents and caregivers. Students need approval from teachers, mentors, and coaches. Employees need approval from their bosses. All of this leads to resilience and good mental health.
Yet there are ways we can pursue attention and affirmation that are not beneficial. This is true when, for example we seek approval in an ultimate sense. In these moments, we aren’t simply asking if the things we have or do are good. Rather we seek to answer the question, “Am I good?” The signal that we broadcast calling others to “look at all I’ve accomplished” is meant to generate evaluations of goodness and righteousness concerning our very being.
In the seemingly never-ending dance of comparison and competitiveness, many of us are left feeling like we are not doing enough. Whether we’re “broadcasting” ourselves or not, it’s difficult to escape what sociologist Donna Freitas calls “the happiness effect.” Freitas worries that constantly comparing ourselves with others, wondering whether our lives are as amazing, happy and successful as theirs doesn’t actually breed more happiness, but rather its opposites: depression, anxiety, sadness and guilt.
Because we are not like the famous Instagrammers, over-achievers, or superhero-parents, it’s easy to conclude that our lives are not good enough. And since our sense of self is caught up in these moral horizons of personal evaluation, we end up feeling, at our core, that we are not enough.
It is as if being enough is what we are all really chasing. And we get caught up in the various implicit moral horizons against which we measure ourselves. We cannot really say where these standards come from or if they are even legitimate. Often, they seem arbitrary. But we are nevertheless driven by them because others are also driven by them. If we want to measure up, if we want to be enough, we feel as if we must operate in accord with the cultural imperatives we find around us. Only then, do we think, will others see us as enough, and maybe, just maybe, we will also feel like we are enough.
But how can anybody be enough amid a pandemic?
Consider the circumstances. We’re up against an incredibly contagious, invisible disease that is killing at a rate much higher than the modern world has known for at least a century. And even with our technological advancements over the last one hundred years, all we can really do is hope that treatments or vaccines will arrive somewhere in the near (but not near enough) future. So we’re left with mitigating practices, most of which are meant to protect us and others as best they can from exposure and to prevent our healthcare system’s critical response centers from being overwhelmed.
We hope for a cure. We’re anxiously awaiting whatever gets us back to “normal.” We long for the comfort of the way that it was.
Yet, all along we still feel as if we’re not doing enough, not handling our new reality well enough. And so we don’t feel like we are enough. But what if our measure, our horizon for what counts as enough, is off?
What if I told you that you are enough when you merely observe social/physical distancing guidelines because in doing so, you are serving your neighbor and your family by preventing exposure and contributing to reduced taxation of the healthcare system? What if I told you that it is enough when you are staying at home and just keeping up with the things that you can maintain—getting your work done, keeping your kids fed, maintaining your household?
What if I told you that schemes of comparison and competitiveness function as horizons that use false hierarchies, and that you need not do anything more to be enough? What if I told you that your perception of another person’s life won’t help you determine an answer to the question, “Am I enough?” To answer that question, we need an evaluative point of view that stands outside the relief of merely human activity, a perspective that sets all that activity against a more significant background.
What if I told you this: You are already enough.
Because God sees you. You stand out against his evaluative horizon.
He sees that you’re trying to faithfully work from home, teach your children, follow the social distancing guidelines, not hoard groceries, get a little exercise, not watch too much of the news, and not worry too much. God sees that you’re trying to do what you can. God sees that you’re concerned about protecting others. God knows that you want to make a difference, but he wants you to know that simply staying home is actually enough.
Through staying home and everything else you’re doing, God is at work in you to serve those around you. It might be so ordinary that it doesn’t feel like it, but it’s true nevertheless. This might sound strange, since many of us feel like we’re doing little and could/should be doing more. Yet, based on all the best information we have, sitting tight at home and meeting your responsibilities to those with whom you’re in relationship—that’s your calling right now. And it is enough.
This is true despite how poorly you might think you’re doing in handling the circumstances of this pandemic. If you’re more anxious than you feel like you should be; if you’ve yelled at your kids more than you want to admit; if you’re not proud of how much you’ve been binging on Netflix; if you’ve found yourself thinking it’s wine-o’clock earlier and earlier—none of this determines how God sees you. In your failings and temptations, missteps and weak moments, God sees you with empathy and love.
Because God sees you, YOU are enough. Not because of the things you’re doing (or not doing). Not because of anything about you at all. Rather, YOU are enough because God sees you. And in seeing you, he sees Jesus, who gave his life for you. And that’s what makes you enough. Being enough isn’t earned. It is given. Not by the attentive masses with whom you compare yourself, but by your Creator. And that’s the only opinion that really matters when it comes to the evaluative horizon by which it is determined that we are enough. God says so.
Christians call this grace. Grace is defined most simply as unmerited favor. It’s yours for Jesus’ sake.
So take a rest in this grace. Breathe. Imagine yourself as God sees you—he sees you all the time, like a parent full of love but in an unimaginably greater way. This gift of grace can be a gift of rest. You can rest confidently here, aware of your true status—you are enough.