ADVERTISEMENT

This is a story about how I ended up in a McDonald’s, in a bad part of Los Angeles eating a Happy Meal for Christmas lunch.

It’s also a story about Facebook envy.

Facebook envy is a condition that causes you to see one single fabulous out-of-context moment of someone else’s life and compare their one great moment against the totality of your own life.

I’ve experienced it, and I suspect I’ve also caused it.

Now for the Christmas part. McDonald’s was the only place open. My two daughters and I had to walk there. We had been up since 4 a.m. We looked awful.

If I had seen someone looking like myself (a mess that day) with her two daughters, also looking messy, eating at McDonald’s on Christmas Day in a rough part of town, I would have thought, “Oh my, what could have possibly happened in that poor woman’s life that she ended up having Christmas dinner with her daughters at McDonald’s. Poor dear, how pathetic.”

I likely would have given her what I believed to be an encouraging smile hoping to communicate nonjudgmental empathy for her plight.

Here’s the back story: I ended up looking pitiful at McDonald’s Christmas day because my family and I had flown to Los Angeles from Atlanta early that morning. We had a 10-hour layover in LA before we caught a flight to Australia, where we were embarking on a fabulous two-week trip. It was a super-extravagant family present.

We’d booked a day room at an airport so we could nap during our layover. My daughters and I had a craving for french fries. So we walked down the street to the only place open, McDonald’s, and indulged ourselves in high fat food before we embarked on the trip of our lives.

Whenever I see someone in a seemingly bad spot, I try to be empathetic. But in that moment in McDonald’s, I recognized that when I see people who seem to be having a rough time, oftentimes, it’s not empathy I feel, but pity.

There’s a big difference. Empathy connects you with people; pity puts space between you. Empathy is when you try to understand a person’s situation.

Pity is when you think, poor dear, I’m so glad that’s not me. Pity is natural, and can be a kind response to others. But it’s often misplaced because it’s based on your assessment of a single situation, and let’s be honest here, how you compare it to your own situation.

Which leads me back to Facebook envy. Facebook envy is the parallel to single circumstance pity. Both occur when you compare a single snapshot of someone else’s life to the full 3-D movie of your own life.

Anyone who saw us at McDonald’s on Christmas Day might have easily assumed that we were kind of pitiful. Yet my Facebook status that morning – “Flying to Australia for the holidays!” – could have just as easily inspired jealousy.

Humans are called the “comparing creatures.” Comparing ourselves to others is how we make sense of life. Comparisons can inspire us to grow and change. Comparisons also can provide helpful examples of what we don’t want to be.

But comparisons without context don’t tell the full story. Someone with gorgeous kids may have financial problems; someone who’s broke may have a wonderful spiritual life. You just never know about people.

The snapshot , be it at McDonald’s or Facebook, is just one glimpse of a very long story.