Comparison is the thief of joy
“How is Oscar doing?” is always such a complicated question to answer.
It requires that I gauge the closeness of the relationship, the available time, the environmental distractions, the historical knowledge. It also requires that I answer, for myself, the question, “Compared to what?”
If you also know that I am a hard-core introvert, you can probably guess that my usual response is to shut all that overwhelming internal monologue DOWN and answer in 20 words or less, beginning with, “Pretty well!” and ending with “Thanks for asking!” So, 15 words of actual content. Generous estimate.
But because I am asked this question with some frequency, I frequently end up back at that “Compared to what?” place in my head sooner or later. And daily interaction with the outside world begs the question. When Oscar was a younger baby, his delays were less apparent. But his developmental behavior now lags noticeably behind his age peers. And while I wish I could say that doesn’t bother me, it really, really does sometimes.
In our home life, it rarely does. He is, quite frankly, a delicious boy. He giggles and coos to himself, and rolls around into precarious spots under the homeschool table. It would be impossible to overstate how much his siblings adore him and squabble to be near him, hold him, feed him. Now that his seizures are mostly under control and not a shadow hanging over our every moment, his presence is a source of great and profound joy. And yes, lack of sleep and occasional earsplitting shriek of indignation. But joy.
This is even more true when he hits a new milestone. We don’t count things according to the CDC guidelines of normal child development. You should have heard the uproarious applause last week when he debuted, to those present our packed dinner table, his newfound ability to pick up a morsel of food and shove it into his own mouth. The triumph! The glory!
And, because I am a small person, the tiny little whiny inner voice reminding me that at the age of 13 months, we were celebrating our other children’s toddling around independently, not struggling to master Finger Feeding 101.
I do my best to quash that voice. At home, it is easier to do. In the world, it is harder.
Many people comment on how well behaved he is at Mass, never grabbing or wiggling or shouting. “Thanks! We’re very lucky,” I demurely respond. (“That’s because that’s all he can do,” I growl inwardly.)
In the baby-only room at the children’s museum, as he lolled on the floor mesmerized by his own reflection, he was nearly trampled by a toddling child. “How old is she?” I asked. “13 months,” came the reply. (“Of course,” my sarcastic inner demon plagues me. “You knew that before you asked. Why did you ask?”)
He comes to the nursery at our homeschool co-op with me. When we joined, early last spring, I was excited that there were three other baby boys only three months older than Oscar. I daydreamed of how much (raucous!) fun it would be to watch them grow up together, how lucky he was to make potential lifelong friends. Now Screwtape enjoys pointing out to me how the other boys are growing up, away from him.
I just noticed that over the course of writing these examples, I stopped attributing that inner voice to myself and started attributing it to those little gremlins whom we know “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.” And that’s just it, isn’t it? These thoughts are both the product of my own broken mind (and heart), and the product of real temptations.
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Cor 10:13) The temptation to compare is so, so common. It was common to my life as a parent before Oscar: Are my kids doing as well in school as their peers? Are they as well dressed? Are they as polite and obedient and charming? It is common to my life as a human person, for goodness sake. Am I winning at life? What about her? Is she winning more?
Nothing, but nothing, empties us of joy and contentment faster than comparison. While it is true that we must, so to speak, keep our eyes on our own work at all times (at least when they aren’t fixed on heaven as our true destination), that task seems doubly hard to me as a special needs parent.
Right now it does, anyway. I can also see that I am getting lots more practice than the average bear at learning to embrace the present moment, to appreciate where Oscar is, rather than always worrying about where he should be. Today’s step, and maybe a glimpse at tomorrow’s, is enough. I don’t need to worry about next year’s, or the neighbor’s. I don’t need to grumble about what he can’t do. Why would I, when it’s so much triumphant fun to celebrate what he can? (Seriously wish I had video to share with you of that dinner table hootenanny.)
The bonus side effect is that I can, if I let myself, also apply this grace to my other children. I have, shall we say, raaaaawther high standards. (Our priest has called our family “intense.” Guilty.) But if I can let the CDC guidelines for Oscar’s development be the long game, rather than the road map for what he should! be! doing! right nownownow!… then perhaps I can also let those lofty standards be the roadmap for helping to form my children’s characters and hearts over the very, very, very long term, as opposed to, say, being finished with manners by next Wednesday at 5pm.
And perhaps I could even let myself extend that grace to myself and the pockmarks in my own character, to the lack, today, of the pretty virtues I see in my brothers and sisters in Christ. Or (gasp!) even to my beleaguered husband.
But what is the key to actually doing this?
“The door to the castle is prayer and reflection.”
St. Teresa of Avila
The castle is the interior castle of our soul, where God waits for us, calling from the innermost chamber. And only from inside the castle can we see the world rightly. We see our children, our spouses, ourselves as the gifts they are rather than the gifts we wish they were. Without our taking the first step, without our taking the time to open the door before listening, the clamor of the outside world is too loud for us to hear God’s voice, for Him to put His own eyes into our silly heads.
So. Sometime between therapy and homeschooling and potty training and driving and cooking and laundrying and medicating… there needs to be some praying.
Ah, there’s the rub.