If I ask you to imagine the middle child of the Brady Bunch—Jan—shaking her head and lamenting “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” can you picture her knitted forehead, clenched fists, and narrow shoulders shuddering with a sigh as she sputters out her older sister’s name? (If not, please indulge me with a quick Google search.)
Somehow that exact tone of frustration and dismay superimposed itself on my interpretation of the Mary and Martha story in the Gospel of Luke. Anytime I read about Jesus questioning Martha’s choice to prepare food instead of sit in his company, it’s in the voice of Jan Brady.
Martha, Martha, Martha!
Maybe it’s the blending of these unrelated stories that causes my aversion to the tale (Jan’s tone isn’t pleasant coming from a 10-year-old girl; it’s absolutely cringeworthy coming from an adult man—Jesus, no less). But there’s more to my distaste than voice. From Cain and Abel to Queen Elizabeth I and Bloody Mary, stories in which siblings are compared and then pitted against each other rankle me, no matter the circumstance. That includes this circumstance, the one in which Jesus is the comparing culprit.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things,” Jesus admonishes, “but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42).
Look, I know that I can’t really argue with Jesus. The man is God, after all, and he’s right (of course he’s right) that sitting in the presence of the divine is a better use of time than housekeeping. Yet my gut reaction to the story conveys an important message as well: Comparison is toxic.
No personal experience drives this point home for me more than the weeks and months surrounding the births of my two daughters.
I spent the first few months of my first daughter’s life in a state of bliss.
In a nutshell, everything about my husband’s and my transition to parenthood went exceptionally well. I don’t know how we got to be so lucky, just that we did, with a medical team that exuded competence and compassion, employers that provided generous paid parental leaves, and a baby who slept easily from Day 1. Between all this luck and a hearty dose of postpartum oxytocin (aka the hormone of love), I spent the first few months of my first daughter’s life in a state of bliss.
When our second daughter was born 18 months later, in the midst of a global pandemic, our circumstances had changed. My husband’s and my careers were in tenuous spots. We were socially isolated, and I had recently decided to go back to school (an ultimately exciting but presently daunting, expensive, and time-consuming process). Our toddler’s boundless energy and unrelenting needs (God bless her) deemed snuggling on the couch with my new baby for hours on end impossible, and the sweet, sweet light of vaccinations at the end of the pandemic tunnel remained invisible at that point. Depressed and lonely, a postpartum cloud of bliss was not in my cards the second time around.
But boy did I want it to be. And boy was I going to fight tooth and nail to make it so. I brainstormed and game-planned (“How to Achieve Postpartum Bliss?”) with my husband. I burned soothing candles and kept the dreamiest playlist of lullabies projecting on repeat. “Be happy! Enjoy this time! It’s so fleeting!” I coaxed myself over and over again.
It will probably come as no surprise that my efforts flopped and that I couldn’t—much to my chagrin—force bliss into being.
Looking back on those fragile days and weeks, I don’t regret the absence of euphoria, but I do regret that I was so hard on myself for my inability to feel a particular way. I also regret that I held those early days with my second born in near constant comparison to the first few weeks with my first born.
Theodore Roosevelt is attributed with saying that “comparison is the thief of joy.” Tell me about it, man. Comparison is also the thief of peace, acceptance, and a whole host of other good things. By comparing my second postpartum experience with my first, I robbed myself of being present in the moment of the second, which, sure, was a tough time in which to be present but also contained moments of inexplicable sweetness. Glimmers of light squeeze through the cracks of even the worst of times, but I blinded myself to those delicate rays by constantly looking back and wishing for what was in the past.
When we heighten our awareness of the present moment by looking for God in that moment, we resist comparison.
In many ways, the propensity to compare seems woven into the fiber of our being. The Hebrew Bible tells a litany of comparison stories, one after the other, from Sarah and Hagar, to Isaac and Ishmael, to Jacob and Esau, to Leah and Rachel, to Joseph and his brothers. These stories demonstrate the heartache that comes from comparing without necessarily providing answers on how to overcome this troublesome aspect of our human nature. However, other parts of our faith do offer direction.
The spiritual practice that comes to my mind is the Ignatian concept of “finding God in all things.” When we heighten our awareness of the present moment by looking for God in that moment, we resist comparison. We are here, and God is here, and that is all. This sort of mindset doesn’t gloss over the fact that some periods of life are harder than others, but it helps us recognize that slivers of divinity exist in both the bliss and the misery. In the words of the theologian Frederick Buechner, “In the boredom and pain of [life], no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
May God grant us all the grace to resist comparison: to hold each slice of time that we are in, each person whom we are with, and each place where we have landed up to the light, to examine it closely in its uniqueness, not in comparison with anything else, but for what it is. Imperfect, flawed, and broken as it may be, God is there too.
This article also appears in the August 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 8, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels/Victoria Borodinova