I bought a new truck last week. For the last thirteen years, I’ve driven a Honda Accord. Tiffani’s dad bought her that car before we got married. Not long after, we purchased a more family-friendly vehicle, and just like that, the Honda Accord became my primary mode of transport.
It was a great car for a long time. I loved that car. In its final days, though, the thing began to fall apart. The writing was on the wall, and had been for some time, but I refused to let go. I didn’t want a new car. The raggedy old metal box was part of my identity. It fit me, you know? Not flashy, but gets the job done. Doesn’t pass the eye test, but reliable. Flies under the radar, but always gets from point A to point B.
The tide turned, however, when Tiffani was forced to use the Accord for a work trip to south Alabama. When you drive a raggedy vehicle everyday, you don’t consider its legion of problems. You know they exist. You know the air conditioner says, “Nah, I’m good” when temps rise above 85. You know the tires are dry-rotted and the headliner has detached from the ceiling and the car pulls hard to the left. But those things exist in your sub-conscious. You have an unspoken bond with your “little engine that could.” You just assume you will always get where you’re going.
But when someone you love assumes the wheel, it’s like a spotlight shines bright on every single problem. You see problems you didn’t know existed before. My mind rehearsed all the ways Tiffani’s commute could go bad. It was a dark, stressful day for me. I prayed a lot and paced a lot, and by the grace of God, she returned safely.
That night, we both decided it was time to say good-bye to Alfred (that’s right, my Accord has a name. Don’t you dare judge me.)
Car buying has changed, guys. In a short time, too. We bought a swagger wagon three years, and I stayed at the dealership for the better part of a day. By the time I crossed the final t’s and dotted the final I’s, I despaired of life, and couldn’t care less if we bought the darn van or walked home on foot.
I decided I wanted to buy my truck at 2:30 p.m. Tiffani rode up there to take a look. They got the paperwork together, I left work at 5:00. Arrived at 5:30. By 5:50, I left the lot, with a new vehicle. It shouldn’t be that easy.
WHAT WE PAY ATTENTION TO MATTERS
When I left the lot, I was on a high. The first time I’ve updated my primary mode of transportation in a decade-plus. Immediately, my perspective changed. I never noticed the plethora of trucks burning tread on the roads. There are so many trucks. Why hadn’t I noticed that before?
And I realized that what we pay attention to shapes our worldview. Our brains can’t process all the stimuli around us. It must choose what gets our attention, and what gets our attention shapes who we become.
So, what gets your attention? What are you paying attention to? If you look for a world of fear and mistrust, you will find it. If you look for a world of love and peace, you will find it. You choose your reality, in other words. And you choose it by what you give your attention to. When you see people who live differently, who live with love and hope and joy – Do you know people like that? If you don’t, you should find some – it’s not an accident. God didn’t give these people something you don’t have. No, they’ve chosen to see a hopeful world.
This seems too simple, doesn’t it?
But here’s a hard and fast rule: spiritual growth will always be simple, but never easy.
If someone tells you spiritual growth requires a master’s degree to understand, it’s probably not from God. Likewise, if someone sells you a simple three-step process that ensures overnight success, that’s probably not from God either.
So, yes, this stuff about awareness and paying attention to the right things is simple. But it’s not easy. Go ahead. Try it. You’ll see.
For example, I have critical eye. One that borders on cynicism, especially when I’m unhealthy. This isn’t from God, and I know it. So, I try to practice seeing everything through a lens of optimism, and my goodness is it hard. It’s so hard. But every time I do it, I feel closer to God.
So, this is a huge challenge. But an essential one. To pay attention. To focus on the things of God.
COMPARISON INCREASES WITH UPWARD MOBILITY
I already talked about how I began to notice how many trucks filled the roads after I bought one. But here’s something else that happened, something I didn’t expect.
Even though I had a nice, new truck, I began to compare my trucks to others. I became hyper-focused on all the things my truck didn’t have. I saw a GMC that had Denali slapped on the side and thought, that truck’s better than mine. Rather than enjoying what I had, I became trapped in what I didn’t.
I never did this with my Accord. Not once. Why would I? Every vehicle was nicer than mine. But here lies the danger of chasing the Joneses. It breeds comparison. So much of the shame and anxiety and restlessness that plagues middle-to-upper class society comes from comparison. I’m convinced of it.
We get that new job, with the nice salary, so we go buy a house. And we love that starter home, because it’s our first abode. But we’re not content, are we? So, we purchase another home, a bigger one. And now the game has begun.
Purchase a home. Notice the Smith’s nicer residence, with its multiple floors and two-car garage. Become discontent with our current home. Start looking for one with multiple floors and a two-car garage. But that new house costs more money, so we have to ask for a raise or find a job that makes more money. But with more money, comes more responsibility and less free time. You see the cycle? With every new and larger purchase, we decrease our margins, and as margins decreases, so does the voice of God.
And look, some of us don’t care about houses. Some people don’t care about cars. But comparison can manifest in a myriad of ways. Job titles. Clothes.
Oh, and here’s one that’s rampant where I live and probably where you live too: kids.
So many parents use their kids to feed their addiction to comparison. Our children become pawns for own game, and I know this because I do it. And because I see the parents on social media who only post when their kid wins an award at school or a baseball tournament or something like that.
The caption goes on about how proud and blessed the parent is about Timmy’s award or trophy and proceeds to give all the reasons he deserves the award.
And maybe these parents are blessed, but underneath it all I sense a need to prove to the world that they have great kids. These parents want everyone to know they did a great job – they need everyone to know – and they do this by turning their children into show ponies. They’re trapped in the same game, and maybe in a worse way, because rather than using stuff to feed their addiction, they use people. Their own flesh and blood.
Because I struggle with the temptation to use my children to prove my worth to the world, I’ve made a conscious decision not to advertise their accolades. I’m not perfect, of course. For all have sinned and fallen short. Before I post something about my kids, however, I look hard in the mirror and ask if I’m doing this to validate myself or to uplift my child? Since my children don’t have social media and therefore don’t read what I write, the answer is almost always the former.
Comparison is a dangerous game, one that has no end and no winners. Because even if you somehow succeed in having the nicest and largest and most immaculate house or car in all the land, you sit down on your leopard-skinned couch and realize you chased a mirage.
You spent so much time and energy running this race and now you have your prize, and it’s filled with poo. It smells, wreaks of shame and loneliness and so on. That’s what comparison does. Comparison retards growth of all kinds, especially spiritual growth.
YOU CAN’T FOLLOW GOD AND UPWARD MOBILITY
I want to say this as clearly as I know how: you can’t chase upward mobility and follow God.
The cost of upward mobility is the loss of freedom, the inability to take risks and follow God’s promptings. Most of us, myself included, don’t think God calls us to make radical decisions because we have two car payments and a house payment and we pay for private school and day care and private lessons for piano or guitar or baseball.
Is it that God doesn’t call us to make radical decisions. Or – and hear me out – is it that God can’t call us to make radical decisions because we’re shackled to our upward mobility? We don’t have enough margin in our lives to hear from God. So, we settle for a watered-down version, a God who praises us for attending church and tithing and not cheating on our spouse.
We read the stories in the Bible, the ones about Abraham abandoning his family and Noah building an ark and Moses rising up against Pharaoh, and we think “Wow, that’s unreal” and we never consider that God still wants to speak to us that way. But we don’t listen. We can’t. We’re enslaved to our standard of living.
So, we settle.
And the grace of God is that he remains present in our lives and continues blessing us, even though we neuter his presence.
Over and over in the gospels, Jesus tells us that the poor and outcasts are better off than the rich and privileged. And now I know why. The poor have unfiltered access to the voice of God. They have nothing, so nothing can keep them from hearing God.
I’m just as guilty as anyone. I’m enslaved to upward mobility. I have a nice home and two cars and kids who play multiple competitive sports. It’s hard, nay impossible, for me to discern the voice of God. And I don’t know what to do about it.
These are all things I pondered since buying a new vehicle. Welcome to the interior workings of my brain. Always wear a seat belt.
Sometimes I write things with a clear “this is the application” type endings. Most times I do that.
This isn’t one of those posts. I wish I didn’t feel the need to compare myself, to keep up with the Joneses, to live a marginless life. But I do. And I don’t know the answer.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe there is no answer. But instead an awareness and a willingness to wrestle. To live in the tension, to tug and pull on the dangers and beauties of our present circumstances. So, that’s where I’ll leave this.
May you have the courage to see where comparison manifests itself, and take action.
Grace and peace, friends.