Monday, May 22, 2006

Never Mind the Joneses!

This weekend was a Lost weekend - we got the first season of Lost from the library, but only had it for three days, so we watched three episodes Friday night, three episodes Saturday night and two episodes on Sunday before we returned it. Great show!

Also this weekend we were in various contexts with other people where I found myself inadvertently comparing our family with others. In one case, I was pleased to see that Josiah has better reading skills than a kid older than him, giving me reason to feel smug and superior. In another case, a baby the same age as Elijah is already walking (whereas Elijah isn't yet), and we heard about other kids who have many more activities and extracurriculars than our kids do. So this left me feeling inadequate and inferior. What to do?

As I was processing all of my thoughts and feelings, I was reminded of the book Never Mind the Joneses by Tim Stafford, who talks about how every family has its own distinct family culture. Some families have a sports culture, others have a musical culture, and so on. He describes how his family is a backpacking family, and some years ago during a rainy hike his daughter was having a miserable time and said, "I hate this! I hate it, I hate it, I hate it! And the thing I hate the most is that I know when I grow up I'm going to marry someone just like Dad, and we'll make our kids go backpacking!" Ten years later, while she's not married yet, she has come to love backpacking. It's part of her family's cultural DNA.

Stafford points out that families shouldn't compare themselves to other families' ideals of what a family should look like - they should discern their own particular family culture and seek to live faithfully and Christianly in whatever way God has wired them. So that frees us from comparing ourselves to other families that seem more perfect or more holy or whatnot - we can simply live the lives that we have been given to live, in our own distinct way.

On one level this is helpful to me, especially since suburbia is filled with opportunities to compare ourselves with people more affluent or socially active than us. I can think to myself, "Never mind the Joneses," and just focus on how our family seeks to live and parent and follow God in ways true to us - through frequent trips to the library and evenings on the reading couch (as book publishing professionals, our family culture is a bookish one).

But on the other hand, I'm also tempted to retreat from the world and ignore the Joneses. If hanging out with other families makes me feel envious or arrogant or insecure, then rather than trying to compete with them, I will tend to withdraw and disengage instead. So I end up not being motivated to be in community with others whose very presence or identity makes me feel inadequate. Perhaps this is a spiritual maturity issue on my part, and I just need to get over it. So the challenge is this - how do we "never mind the Joneses" in terms of trying to keep up or copy or compete with others, and yet stay engaged with the Joneses and build community and relationships with the Joneses?

I'd like to think that ideally, in the church, our Christian identity transcends differences in socioeconomic status or demographic differences, but in practice, it's often hard for stay-at-home moms and working moms to not feel threatened or criticized by one another's lifestyles, or for white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers to find common ground. I'm encouraged when I see relationships being built across these kinds of lines, and I'm hopeful that the church can be a place where we don't have to worry about comparing ourselves or competing with each other. But I'm still disturbed to find myself falling into these habits of comparison and competition, which tells me that status is probably still too much of an idolatry in my life.

1 comment:

Ashleigh said...

Al, I know I replied somewhere else already, but I wanted to thank you officially for the blog-visit... though I was wondering how the heck you found me! What's weird is I remember finding the link to your blog on IVP but don't really remember reading anything till now. Did you just find me through some search for Suburban Christian?

It's great to see Christian minds at work-- keep blogging. ;o)