Comparing ourselves to whom?

Oct 26, 2015 by

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A funny thing happened when I moved to D.C. six years ago. I went from being surrounded by a laid-back crew of seminarians, pastors, poets and radicals to living in one of the most powerful, motivated and highly paid neighborhoods on earth.

It was a big shift in perspective. I had gotten used to living among simple people. Some of them had money and impressive jobs, but they weren’t the norm. I mostly compared myself to the people who were just getting by. And I was always aware of my friends who were struggling to survive. In the Midwestern rust-belt economy, the Great Recession has been going on for decades.

When I moved to Capitol Hill, I was introduced to a whole new social landscape. These were focused, driven, specialized and highly paid people. My neighbors came from around the world, seeking to work at the seat of U.S. power. They served congressmen, lobbied for interest groups of all kinds and led nonprofits stationed in Washington to advance a variety of social agendas. I had arrived in a land of formal attire, nannies and dual-income power couples.

The air is different here in Washington; the longer I breathe it, the more it has affected me. Over the years, I’ve lost my frame of reference in the gentle culture of honest but economically struggling people. Another worldview has become the norm for me: one of worry, status-obsession and lives that revolve around work.

These years in D.C. have helped me understand that my perceptions about life have little to do with what is actually happening, and everything to do with the comparisons I make with those around me.

Whom am I comparing myself to? Is it the family to the west who works for a think tank and can afford a home on Capitol Hill? Is it the diplomats, politicians and corporate leaders chauffeured from one climate-controlled environment to another? Or will I look to the thousands of D.C. residents who are struggling to survive in the midst of rapid economic upheaval and injustice?

There’s another world that exists in my city, a thousand light-years from the brunches and cocktail parties of the elites. It’s a world of rising rents, dwindling job opportunities, homelessness and talented lives wasting away on public assistance. I experience an almost irresistible temptation to turn away from this alternate reality, the apartheid state hidden in plain sight.

Why? Why do I prefer to compare myself to the wealthy rather than consider myself in solidarity with the poor? How did I allow the 1 percent to become my norm?

This elite focus is especially misguided for someone who wants to follow Jesus. Christ’s entire ministry was about making himself the least, descending to the very bottom of the social pyramid in order to upend the whole oppressive structure once and for all. Through his liberating teaching and revolutionary sacrifice on the cross, Jesus conquers the myth of the 1 percent. He calls us into a reality where those who have the least are our frame of reference.

Shifting the focus from the richest to the brokest isn’t just some pious exercise; it’s the surest way to experience joy and freedom. As long as I’m fixated on the wealth, fame, success, status and power that others have, I trap myself in a race to acquire those same advantages. But when my frame of reference centers on those who have the least, I’m liberated into a life of thanksgiving and generosity. This is the opposite of the high-stress culture that is so prevalent here.

How about you? Whom are you comparing yourself to? What kind of life do you want to be living? Do you want to spend your time climbing ever higher toward those who have more than you, or would you prefer to focus your attention on those who have been left out of the games of the 1 percent?

Micah Bales is a writer, teacher, and grassroots Christian leader based in Washington, D.C. He is a founding member of Friends of Jesus, a new Quaker community, and has been an organizer with the Occupy movement. You can read more of his work at www.micahbales.com or follow him on Twitter.


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