The Problem with Perception
by Sarah Phillips
The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. - 1 Samuel 16: 7b
A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine mused, "Why are people like Paris Hilton so unhappy? They have no earthly excuse to be." It's human nature to look at snapshots of someone else's life and conclude that they somehow have it better than we do. Too many times I've allowed my perceptions of someone else's happiness to create discontent in my own world. I wonder, "God, why are you blessing them and not me?"
Not only is it tempting to make assumptions about those who've achieved worldly success, but I've caught myself and others making wrong assumptions about what it means to be a godly person, a "good Christian." I hear fellow believers say they feel small or inadequate next to some perceived spiritual giant or that they envy some gift or perceived virtue of another.
I recently came across a reflection from a young woman that gave me a fresh perspective on those I perceive to be "perfect." St. Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun who lived in the late 19th century, was a model Christian very young in life. Yet, a few years before her own young death at 24, she reflected on how others perceived her in her autobiography Story of a Soul:
"I cannot say that Jesus makes me walk the way of humiliation exteriorly. He is content to humble me in the depths of my soul; in the eyes of creatures, I succeed in everything."
Therese expressed much discomfort in the compliments lavished on her because, as she so matter-of-factly states: "I remember who I am." She knew the intimate details of her faults even while others could not see them, and often felt the difference between her and the great Saints like Aquinas was as vast as a grain of sand at the foot of a mountain.
St. Therese wasn't alone in her discomfort of others' perceptions. Mother Teresa often tried to deflect attention because she knew she wasn't really the true source of her "success." Mother Teresa's personal letters revealed her own private periods of darkness laced throughout her extraordinary life.
Sometimes, the unseen crosses weigh us down more than any outward suffering ever could. There is so little we truly know about other souls -- only that which others are willing to share with us. This is why the comparison game is such a sham. It creates a toxic cycle of private shame and envy that isolates individuals in a world where we're all trying to "measure up" to fabricated standards. Jim Hancock, the author of Posers, Fakers, and Wannabes, expressed the dangerous game of comparison like this: "I judged what I knew about me by what I didn't know about them."
Life, of course, does not have to end with each one of us locked in a private world of faults and failings. Even with their interior crosses, both St. Therese and Mother Teresa knew they did not have to live a life of disconnection, shame or envy. They knew true inner peace rested with the only One who is perfect and yet, with full knowledge of our faults, loves us unconditionally.
Not only does God love us as we are, but He's ready to use even our failings for incredible good - perhaps even greater good than had we been "perfect." When we stop comparing and put energy towards building the most important relationship we'll ever have, doors open to a life greater than we could have planned or achieved on our own.
Intersecting Faith & Life: Americans are reportedly some of the loneliest people on the planet. Intimacy flourishes when we let our guards down and allow others to see who we really are, imperfections and all. Set aside a little time this week to strengthen a relationship with a friend or family member. Be open to talking about what's really going on in each others' lives so that you can build each other up in the faith.