I have a confession to make. I have a problem with reality TV. And its sob story packed talent-contest counterparts. There, I said it. Call me a snob or whatever you like, but that’s not the point. It’s more the idea behind these shows that I dislike, an idea that reflects poorly back on us as a nation. The whole premise behind shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, for example, is as much to do with the humiliation and embarrassment of another human being, as it is about talent. And this embarrassment creates entertainment for the rest of us.
Obviously, people choose to take part in these shows. They’re not being paraded against their will. But what does it say about our culture that these shows are so popular? I think a good part of the answer lies in that as humans, we just can’t resist comparing ourselves with others. Let’s be honest, talent contests are actually great for boosting our self esteem. We laugh at the middle-aged man who believes he’s the next John Travolta, and at the overweight teenager whose parents misguidedly told her she could sing. We laugh at them and at the same time feel a deep inward relief that we have a) more talent than them, and b) the sense to never embarrass ourselves like that. Even with programmes like The Apprentice, where the contestants possess some talent, we get a real kick out of watching them whine, bicker and backstab to save themselves from Lord Sugar’s famous dismissal.
Other forms of media also promote this feel-good factor. Gossip magazines shame celebrities for our reading pleasure. Newspapers are plastered with scandals, from politicians and sportspeople alike. The truth is, as a nation we cannot get enough of watching other people fail.
You’re all intelligent people. I don’t need to tell you that this is unhealthy. Nor am I suggesting you should never watch X Factor ever again (even if it’s just a way of making Simon Cowell richer and the winners boring clones of other famous pop stars). I just think it’s sad that so much of our entertainment is based on others’ failures and mistakes.
We live in a culture of constant comparison, and it’s not doing anything for our own success or self worth. I am as guilty of it as anyone else- I might not be a fan of reality TV, but I certainly struggle with comparing myself to others. In my experience, all it’s ever done is make me feel jealous (which is pointless), superior to someone (which I’m not), or woefully inferior (which I’m not). Never has comparing ever made me a better person or produced any fruitful behaviour.
I do think good role models are important, but it’s all too easy to lose sight of the line. Being inspired by another’s actions is good, trying to emulate someone else’s personality is not. There is only one me and there is only one you. It sounds cliché and ridiculous in a world of billions, but we are all important. Not in an arrogant way- rather in the sense that we all have something to offer, and we can only offer it by being ourselves.
I want my first example to always be Christ. God has many great plans and desires for us, but first and foremost it is that we become more like Himself, and reflect His goodness to others: ‘…that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.’ (Phil 2:15). We are called to represent Jesus on this earth, but we can’t do that if we’re striving to be more like someone else, or covering our insecurities by ridiculing another’s downfall. God needs us to simply be us. We don’t have to be smarter, richer, more popular or successful. It’s easy to forget this, but God isn’t impressed by the same things man is impressed by. To God, obedience, not the fulfilment of our expectations, is success. In Romans 12:12, Paul instructs: ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world.’ I think part of this is that some of the things valued by the world should not be the same things Christians value. And when our attitudes and priorities begin to change, our comparing will lessen.
I was recently struck by a brief moment in John’s gospel, after Jesus has risen and is instructing Peter on the beach. Jesus tells him to spread the gospel and love others after He has ascended, and most importantly, he says to Peter – ‘Follow me’. But Peter typically has to question Him-
20 Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”21 Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?”
22 Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”
I think this illustrates perfectly how we can get so caught up in what others are doing, instead of keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. Peter felt that the other disciple’s destiny was his concern; maybe he even felt that both of them should be given the exact same instructions, because that would be ‘fair’. But Jesus simply tells Peter to obey, and effectively mind his own business.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, this is something we all need to hear sometimes. I honestly think we’d all be a lot more productive, not to mention happier, if we could learn to just do what we need to be doing, without checking up on whether or not others are doing the same.
I don’t have high hopes of gossip mags or reality TV disappearing anytime soon, but change starts with us. You are awesome. Don’t let comparison make you forget that.