There have been a few “motivational” quotes rolling around in my head lately. I call them that for lack of a better word, but they’re certainly quotes that – fairly succinctly – serve as reminders of the way I like to live life (when I remember).
The first, I’ve written about before: “How we spend our days is, in fact, how we spend our lives.” by Annie Dillard. It reminds me to choose wisely in how I spend my moments, and to evaluate how I’m engaging with the world. When I look back on my life, I don’t ever want to feel as though I wasted precious time.
The second, also one I’ve written about but that keeps cropping up: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, but after some googling, it appears there is some disagreement about that. Whatever the case and whatever the source… it couldn’t be more pertinent for me right now.
We think about it a lot in the negative sense… you know, comparing yourself to others and falling short? I compare myself against my siblings sometimes, and can feel like a failure because of it. I don’t make nearly as much money as they do. I haven’t found/chosen a lifelong career and don’t even know that I’ve got much in the way of direction. They’re more mature and… I don’t know, polished? They’re all healthier/thinner than I am (which, that whole “thinner” thing is a crock; your worth has no connection to your size – more to come on that ongoing revelation)… you get the idea. And then there’s the rest of the world. Anywhere you look, it’s possible to compare yourself against others and fall short.
Then there’s the comparison against self piece… like, I get why comparing yourself today against the person you were a month ago might be beneficial if you’re trying to measure progress in something, like health & wellness, fitness, or even educational pursuits. But even that can take a negative turn, if you focus too long on comparing yourself to a previous you, maybe one where you were more successful, in better shape, younger, actually able to conceive/bare children. Or even comparing yourself against a non-existent you, the version of you that you envisioned for yourself, the one that never came to fruition… instead of just being present with (and loving) yourself today, as you are.
And then, there’s the opposite side of the comparison against others coin: being BETTER than. You know, feeling like you’re better than someone else, for whatever reason. You’re smarter, you’re better looking, you’re funnier, you’re more successful, you’re more willing to be part of a team, better at learning things, you work harder than others to open your mind and be a better person…
The funny part is, as I sit here and write this, there’s a voice in the back of my head saying, “Well yeah, but…” and it feels like “not all white people!” when what I should really be doing is listening and learning. Yeah, some people ARE terrible, sure. I could say I’m better than a child abuser because I don’t abuse children, and I think pretty much everyone would agree. But anytime my brain tries to argue with me and gets defensive, I know I’m striking a chord worth digging into.
My recent struggle with this “better than” comparison is feeling like I’m a better person than someone who, say, supported Donald Trump for president. And what “better” looks like is anything from kinder, to more empathetic, to better educated, to more capable of critical thought, to a better grasp on reality…
It sounds pretty terrible when I say that out loud. But how can we ever change if we aren’t willing to get honest about it? Kind of like white privilege and supremacy; if I’m not willing and able to accept hard truths and own stuff, unpack and inspect my own crap, I’m sure as hell never going to be able or willing to hear anything else, much less effect some change. It’s why I follow a lot of POC on Twitter; so I can learn, and do the work to hear, see, and understand as best I can.
But yeah. As soon as I start thinking I’m better than someone else – for any reason – it puts us on an uneven playing field in my own mind, rendering the possibility for civil discourse highly unlikely. And chances are, that person is going to pick up on the judgement I’ve already conjured, especially since I’m not very good at hiding how I feel (like, I’m REAL terrible with it). That judgement is going to come off as condescension, and I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing that will shut me down to someone else, it’s them being condescending. (Passive-aggressive is a very close second.)
If there’s someone out there I love who supports Trump and happens to think his being in office is good for the country and everyone in it, me deciding I’m obviously a better human and a more evolved a thinker than they are is not going to solve or change anything. Right? I don’t pretend to believe for one second that I could change anyone’s mind or force them to believe anything other than whatever conclusions and life views at which they’ve already arrived. But that doesn’t mean I can’t support and participate in the work being done towards what I believe to be right, and just, and true.Or, you know, just work to combat the damage that I believe is being done, without judging the people who are actively supporting it.
So why make that comparison in the first place? Why put yourself up against someone else at all, whether to be better or worse? Why not try to take the judgement and comparison out of all of this, on the off chance it opens up some space for dialogue?
Like, if I remove the self-inflicted comparisons between myself and my siblings, suddenly I have a lot more joy in being who I am, as well as celebrating who they are – their successes, their drive, their lives.
And if I stop comparing myself against who I thought I’d be at this age, or who I was 10, 20, or 30 years ago, or even who I was a month ago, then there’s a lot of room not only for joy, but for acceptance, and growth – inside and out. You limit yourself when you’ve already defined and confined yourself with comparisons.
While I struggle with comparisons of self, and negative comparisons against others, I think it’s the “better than” comparisons I am working to be most wary of. Otherwise it’s a surefire way to thieve the joy right out of life.