Life Is Not A Contest

Even though I try not to, I inevitably compare myself to others. And I usually find myself on the losing side. I can’t help but think of the saying “comparison is the thief of joy” and how devastatingly true that aphorism is. And naturally, I tend to compare myself at my worst with everyone else at their best (or at least with the image they project).

In Frank Bruni’s book, “The Beauty of Dusk,” he explains his “sandwich board theory of life.” Bruni’s memoir is a beautifully written and profoundly moving recounting of his experience with vision loss. Overnight, a rare type of stroke cut off blood to his optic nerve, and he woke up functionally blind with strangely blurred vision in one eye. He recounts coming to grips with the diagnosis of an incurable condition that may also ultimately affect his other eye. Although this turned his life upside down, his condition wasn’t immediately apparent to other people. And with the loss of his sight, he began to develop a different vision and perspective. He realized that everyone is coping with some type of hardship, but similarly to his vision loss, often these struggles aren’t externally apparent.

When I first read his term “sandwich board theory,” my mind involuntarily conjured an image of a turbocharged charcuterie board – platters of pastrami, roast turkey, gourmet mustard, sourdough bread, onion rolls, and maybe even (gasp!) a dessert tray! But, alas, Bruni had something totally different in mind. Instead, he was referencing the advertising tool built from two boards joined at the top with a message or graphic on it, carried by a person with one panel in front and one in the back (creating a “sandwich” effect)*.

Bruni says, “Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons, our pain were spelled out for everyone around us to see. Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.”

We’d all have some tragedy listed for the world to see: a cancer diagnosis; a mystery medical condition that affects our daily life but is yet to be identified with a diagnosis, much less a cure; grief from the loss of a loved one; clinical depression; and so on. The list continues, with different variations and combinations for each person in the world. As Bruni says, “We don’t get to choose what we’re given in the way of hardship, and each of us – every last one of us – is given something.”

So, the “sandwich board theory” is a necessary reminder that we all carry our own hardships. There is no point in comparing myself to someone else whose hardship may be invisible to me. I’ll never have the perspective to understand the entire context of everyone else’s life, and I shouldn’t be so quick to find my life lacking.

A Closing Prayer

God, continue to remind me that comparing myself to others is a futile exercise. Life is not a contest. We all have our own struggles and gifts. Help me be kind to everyone I encounter because although their life may look enviable on the outside, the truth is that life is hard for everyone. No one gets a free pass from struggle and suffering. Let that knowledge deepen my empathy and provide me the courage to get back up from my own struggles and fully appreciate all the goodness in my life. Amen.

*I had a good laugh when I searched for a photo of a “sandwich board” to include with this post. Half the images were pics of my dream charcuterie board (some even more luscious than I had imagined). So apparently Google shares my preoccupation with a good lunch spread. I never did find a decent royalty-free photo of the other kind of sandwich board (but I did decide to take a break for lunch).


  1. Wow. One of your best, Tacky. Gripping. Insightful. And even humorous (although I must admit that I did not think of food when I read the words “sandwich board” — hard to believe). You reminded me of Randy Pauch’s The Last Lecture and playing the cards we are dealt. Although I wouldn’t want to share my personal sandwich board with the world, I would read yours and be unable to understand why you can’t see yourself the way I (others) see you. But, as you write, we all have hardships whether they be invisible or obvious. To me, your sandwich board really is filled with gifts and goodness because that’s who you are in my eyes.


  2. thanks for this!!! i agree, we can spread negative energy by “wearing” our hardships in a visible way… maybe we are called to wear sandwich boards that advertise what brings us hope and joy in spite of having to struggle through the less-desirable parts of our lives?
    certainly not an easy thing to do, for sure…


    1. I could write another whole post on the flip side sandwich board idea of advertising what brings us hope and joy in spite of our hardships. Definitely an interesting thing to ponder.


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