Comparison is the evil twin of disappointment.
I'm listening to the audio book of Mark Nepo's The Book of Awakening. I keep rewinding every couple of minutes to listen again - each phrase is a revelation. It's particularly lovely to have it read to me, in Mark Nepo's own voice. The cadence, tone, and rhythm of his voice is part of the message that the words carry -- a message that would be lost were I reading them myself.
The passage below, in particular, struck me today. We all suffer, needlessly, from the unique pain, senselessness, and ultimately the tragedy of comparison.
Comparison serves a purpose in a clan, a tribe, a culture. To cohere, and thereby to survive and thrive, a group must have norms, agreements, tacit or explicit social contracts. Imagine, for example, if we all drove our cars without any traffic rules. Chaos and death would ensue. Comparison is the internalized mechanism that keeps each one of us in alignment with these norms. At its best, it creates harmony, compassion, connection.
But once there is inequality -- and therefore hierarchy -- comparison serves a different function. It becomes a tool to keep everyone in their place in the order, so that those on top can stay on top. As long as we are comparing ourselves to someone who is richer, thinner, more famous, more "successful," we will be strivers rather than thrivers. The myriad systems of inequality that we humans have invented need strivers. They are the ones willing (or forced) to do the work that the more powerful would rather not do. Strivers, locked in the prison of comparison, will always see themselves as less-than. They will not question the norms -- capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, fat-phobia, homophobia, trans phobia, consumerism. They will be too busy trying to get to the next rung on the ladder of hierarchy. Lose weight. Make more money. Get the next promotion. Or, even more tragically, the world will be deprived of their gifts as they hide in plain sight, afraid of stigma, oppression, and even death at the hands of those who might hate them for being who they are.
At the individual level -- at an emotional and spiritual level -- comparison is agony. It's soul crushing. It's the enemy of peace, of creativity, of speaking your truth and finding your voice. You can never be enough as long as there is someone "better than" you to whom you are comparing yourself.
Comparison is essential to the maintenance of systems of hierarchy. Letting go of it -- recognizing it, calling it out, rejecting it in every moment -- is essential to our individual wholeness.
Here are Mark Nepo's words on the subject. Read them slowly, as if to savor something very rare and special.
“We are born with only one obligation – to be completely who we are. Yet how much of our time is spent comparing ourselves to others, dead and alive. This is encouraged as necessary in the pursuit of excellence. Yet a flower in its excellence does not yearn to be a fish, and a fish in its unmanaged elegance does not long to be a tiger.
"But we humans find ourselves always falling into the dream of another life. Or we secretly aspire to the fortune or fame of people we don’t really know. When feeling badly about ourselves we often try on others’ skins, rather than understand and care for our own.
"Yet when we compare ourselves to others, we see neither ourselves nor those we look up to. We only experience the tension of comparing, as if there is only one ounce of being to feed all our hungers.
"But the universe reveals its abundance most clearly when we can be who we are. Mysteriously every weed and ant and wounded rabbit, every living creature has its unique anatomy of being, which when given-over to is more than enough. Being human, though, we are often troubled and blocked by insecurity – that windedness of heart that make us feel unworthy. And when winded and troubled we sometimes feel compelled to puff ourselves up. For in our pain it seems to make sense that if we were larger we would further from our pain…Of course history is the humbling story of our misbegotten inflations, and truth is the corrective story of how we return to exactly who we are. And compassion, sweet compassion, is the never ending story of how we embrace each other and forgive ourselves for not accepting our beautifully particular place in the fabric of all there is.”
-- Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening.
I invite you now to pause.
Go inward and take a few slow breaths. Bring to mind a comparison that you find yourself making often. If you can't think of one, try this prompt: "If only I were as ____________ as ______________________, then I would _________________.
Now bring your attention to your body. Feel the tension of carrying that comparison. Feel the pain of measuring yourself against another. Feel the tragedy inherent in your belief that you are not enough, that you need to change or be fixed.
Now look in the mirror. Look deep into your own eyes. Try to see yourself in comparison to no one. What you find may surprise and amaze you. It may set you free, if only for a moment.