I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. —Philippians 4:12-13, NIV
While I was playing tennis with a friend, I just could not focus on the game. My eyes kept creeping to the people playing on nearby courts as I watched how good they were. I thought, "Wow, look at that woman's backhand. It's so much better than mine. Remember when your serve used to be that fast? What happened to it?"
As I rehearsed all the negative self-talk in my head, I failed to play my best game or even enjoy playing like I usually do. On top of all that, I was almost clobbered by a tennis ball during our warm-up because I wasn't paying attention!
Instead of playing tennis, I played a different but equally popular game: the comparison game. The comparison game is never fun, but it's oh-so-easy to fall into. The rules of the game are simple. Notice how much easier, better, or more right everything is outside yourself and your own life, and compare it to how terrible, bad or wrong your own situation is.
I hate to admit how often I wind up playing this game, especially since God's Word tells me to be thankful for what He has given me, instead of comparing myself or my family to others. When this game involves my son Luke, who has autism and is mostly nonverbal, it can get downright nasty.
No mother ever wants her child to struggle or suffer. And autism can feel so dark and lonely sometimes. At the time Luke was diagnosed he talked and said around seventy-five individual words and some two-word phrases. But by the time he was three and a half years old, he had mostly lost his ability to speak. Now at almost 18 we hear from him on very rare occasions. After years and years of speech therapy it's not gone according to what we wanted for Luke. In our better moments, we know and trust and have seen that the Lord has good plans for Luke, with or without verbal speech. But it's tough. I remember when our oldest son, Brandon asked many years ago, "Will Luke every get the word brother back?" It's tough on Luke and tough on the rest of us we can't figure out what Luke wants, and he understandably lashes out at us in frustration.
On the other hand, our nephew Teddy, who is also on the spectrum, speaks quite well. He also loves to read. After spending time with Teddy, it's easy to ask God, "Why? Why can't Luke communicate like Teddy can?" Then I'm off and running as the comparison game begins anew. I wind up my own pity party and end up feeling really bummed out, sorry for myself and for Luke. Not only am I then unable to love Luke for who he is, I also can't show excitement for Teddy's progress.
So how do I stop this unhealthy pattern? I turn to God's Word, and particularly I read these words from Philippians that I have repeatedly underlined in my Bible: "Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phillippians 4:5 -7, NIV, emphasis added).
We worship an awesome God, and these verses bring me such encouragement. When I compare my situation to someone else's, I feel anxious. Through Paul's writing, God commands me not to be anxious because He has a much better way. Paul says to pray and present our requests to God because that is where I will find the peace I want. I must pray with thanksgiving. I need to be thankful. Thankful for the little things, like Luke's amazing smile that can light up the whole block, and how affectionate and cuddly he can be. I must be thankful for Teddy's progress too. When we are thankful God's Word says His peace guards are heart and mind. Plus, when I'm praying and focusing on being thankful, I have much less time to play the comparison game!
Finding humor in everyday events also helps me step off the comparison treadmill. Once I remember seeing two newbie tennis players who were laughing and having a great time trying to hit the ball. And what were they wearing on their feet? Flip-flops! They were so much more fun to watch than the ultra-serious players who sure can kick my bottom in tennis! Another time, I laughed so hard when Luke took the rice milk out of the refrigerator and brought it to his dad, Mike for help. Mike was sleeping so when he failed to respond Luke plunked himself down on Mike's back and started riding him like a horse! A little milk spilled out of the container, but Luke obviously made his point without words. We heard what Luke was saying, loud and clear: "I'm thirsty, and I need some rice milk RIGHT NOW!"
When I can laugh instead of cry at the funny and often messy things Luke does, it really helps. The comparison game can suck us in and snatch away our joy if we let it. It's so much better to laugh and smile with both my boys. A few winters back we had a big snowfall. This did nothing to deter Luke form jumping on the trampoline in our yard. He loves the outdoors and love to jump! Brandon and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Luke jump as the snow flew all around him. Eventually, Luke made the sign for more, which we knew was his way of saying, "Come jump with me." So, we did just that! Without Luke and his creativity of play we wouldn't have experienced the snow jumping. Luke takes us on so many wild adventures. Finding humor in them and living in the moment is so much better than comparing my life to someone else's and coming up short.
I'm slowly learning to focus on the things Luke can do instead of the things he can't. I'm trying to live a life that is full of gratitude for all that our wonderful Father has given me. Has given us. I'm trying to live a life in which I find humor in the day-to-day living and where I think about those who are less fortunate than me more often than comparing myself to those who seem to have it all together and everything they want. When I'm able to do this neurodiversity and life on the spectrum can be pretty darn good, both on and off the tennis court.
* This article is an excerpt from Life on the Spectrum: Faith. Hope. Love. Autism. by Deborah Abbs, Kelli Ra Anderson and Kevin O'Brien and with contributions from Kathleen Deyer Bolduc, Michele and Rick Bovell, Barbara K. Dittrich and Michael Abbs. This excerpt is used with permission. The book Life on the Spectrum is a Christian faith-based book written by and for parents and caregivers of those with autism.
Deborah Abbs has written many articles over the years as well as working for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA for 29 years. She currently serves as a disability inclusion and Access IV specialist. You can find this article and more in the book Life on the Spectrum. She has also written Belonging: Accessibility, Inclusion and Christian Community, a Bible study guide published by InterVarsity Press.