I've been thinking a lot about comparisons lately.
Sometimes comparisons are good. We need to have standards, or expectations, to which we compare ourselves so that we and others in our lives can "be the best we can be." We need to be selective about who sets those standards, of course, but the standards themselves are often a good thing. We can measure "success" -- to some extent -- by the degree to which standards are met. DS12's kybo cleaning, for example, is not complete unless the mirror is polished, the sink and counter are clean and tidy, and the toilet has been scrubbed inside and out, top to bottom. I am not succeeding as a product reviewer if I do not comply with the expectations laid out for me by the host company that connects me with the products I receive. If DD8 is consistently bombing out in her math lessons, chances are good that I'm not being successful in my approach to teaching her. When we compare ourselves to certain standards, we can see where we are doing well, and where there is room for improvement.
But it's so easy to get sucked in to comparing ourselves to others, isn't it? As homeschooling parents, we can fall into the trap of comparing the behaviour of our children to that of the family whose children are always polite and kind, or whose academic achievements leave our own children in the dust. As homeowners, we can enter the homes of friends and family whose abodes are impeccable and well appointed, and berate ourselves for the fingerprints that have congregated on the walls, the dust bunnies that accost us in the closets, and the clutter that accumulates on all flat surfaces -- overlooking, of course, that said friends and family are not living in their homes with four children virtually 24/7. Or maybe it's our weight, or the quality of our clothes, or the number of family vacations we've been able to afford, or our ability to intelligently discuss a piece of literature. The list of criteria about which we compare ourselves to others is endless.
And doesn't it just kill our spirits when we compare ourselves to others this way? Doesn't it kill our creativity, too? We simply don't want to try anymore because we just can't "succeed."
Some of you know that I have been working through Carla Sonheim's Drawing Lab for Mixed Media Artists. On Wednesday night, I took delight in starting another lab while waiting for my youngest children as they attended a club. The task was to draw, then paint with water colour, a flower -- either from a picture or an actual plant. Pansies are one of my favourites, and I happened to have a painting of one with me (I should clarify -- it was in a library book. I don't carry pansy paintings around with me ;). So I set about copying it. But the more I worked, the less delighted I became because my work didn't remotely compare to the sample -- it just wasn't good enough. Before long, I didn't even want to play with the paint anymore. I couldn't bring myself to complete the piece.
Thankfully, I looked back at the instructions and discovered that the task went beyond drawing and watercolour. We were to layer it with coloured pencils, and markers, and acrylic paints. Lots and lots of layers of marks and strokes and swirls of colour using different media. So I gave up trying to compare my work to someone else's and abandoned all thoughts of "the way it should be." I just created.
And then I had fun again. I recaptured the joy of being creative, and letting the life of my work flow out of me instead of trying to force myself to do something the way I told myself it "should be done" -- according to standards I'd set for myself based on the work of others. For a while there, I got discouraged because I compared myself to someone else (the artist of the painting I was copying) and didn't "measure up."
It's all about appearances, isn't it? In my mind, my work didn't appear to be as "good" as that other artist. And when it comes to realistically representing a flower in a piece of art, it wasn't. But is that really what is important? Does that mean I was not "successful"? Not really, in the grand scheme of things.
That got me to thinking . . . if I could end up feeling so discouraged by the standard of beauty I'd set for myself in a little art activity, how do the standards I set for my children make them feel? Do they end up feeling frustrated and inept? Do they end up just not wanting to bother trying anymore, the way I felt in my simple little scenario?
I believe we really do need to set standards for ourselves and for our families -- but we are wise to evaluate the basis of those standards. I am reminded of the story of Samuel when he was instructed to annoint the appointed one of Jesse's sons as king. All the "logical" choices based on the assumed standards were rejected by God. Why? Because "the LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1Samuel 16:7). Are the standards to which I compare myself and my family based on outward appearances? Or are they based on the heart?
How does all of this really relate to the comparisons we make on a daily basis -- the ones listed above? Well, the bible doesn't tell me exactly how my children should behave, but it tells them to obey and respect their parents. That means their hearts need to be in tune with mine and God's so that all of our lives can be blessed. There is no biblical standard of how clean my house should be, but God's Word does tell me I need to be hospitable. I need to open my heart and home to those in my community who might be blessed by what God has provided me. God doesn't tell me how much I should weigh or what I should wear, but He does tell me that gluttony is sin, my body is His temple, and that I shouldn't worry about what I'm going to wear any more than the flowers of the fields toil and spin about the issue. If I do worry about how my weight or clothes measure up to others', my heart is in the wrong place, storing up treasures where they don't belong. The bible doesn't say anything about having money for family vacations, but it does instruct us to be wise stewards of our resources, and to take time to rest and pray -- so that our hearts are healthy (literally and metaphorically). As for the literature -- we're instructed to hide God's word in our hearts, and to seek Wisdom, which comes from God -- so does it really matter if we can engage in an academic discussion about something some guy or gal wrote during their threescore and ten here on earth?
And when it comes to our children, I can't help but wonder if the questions isn't even more important. Are the standards to which we hold our families killing their spirits? Do we explicitly or even implicitly compare them to others based on appearances (which are often false anyway)?
If you're still with me (and I appreciate it if you are!) -- would you agree that the important standards are all about the heart? I know I've over-simplified a lot of things here, but when it all boils down, what is it to which we should compare ourselves to measure "success" -- be it creative, academic, physical, social, spiritual . . . ? If our hearts are open, I'm guessing the Creator in us will make it pretty clear.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.