With most things, we rely on a point of reference to help situate ourselves and understand our worlds:
I am stronger than I was last year
I did worse on that test than last time, or than I had hoped
The moon looks bright against the black night’s sky
In a way, we would be lost without something to compare ourselves with.
Unfortunately, a lot of us get caught in using this natural human tendency in a self-deprecating way. “He is smarter than me”, or “she is better looking than me”…etc are thoughts that make us feel small and powerless. These kinds of comparisons do not help us grow, or feel connected with our fellow humans.
However, on the other side of the comparison spectrum, is something beautiful. It can be hard to access when we are caught in toxic comparisons, but I want to challenge us to swing the pendulum and uncover how we can use our natural need for comparison in a self-serving way.
How can we do this??
It starts by reframing how we see difference. Rather than a vertical ladder of who has more or less, what would happen if that ladder became a horizontal plane, upon which we could move fluidly? Rather than ranking people as top dog or underdog, we would look to our neighbors for insight into our environment and ourselves.
I had the privilege of travelling to Japan recently, and I was left awe struck by the completely different culture and norms. In such a foreign environment, I found it amazing how easy it was to recognize difference for what it was: difference. Not a game of “better” or “worse”. Being immersed in this extraordinary and gracious culture made it very clear: there are many ways to be in this world that work for different people in different ways.
Sometimes we forget this notion when we are close to home. This is the paradox of comparison: when we see someone as relatively similar to ourselves, we may compare ourselves to them harshly- as if their haves are due to our have-nots. Meanwhile, it can be easier to forgo comparisons with those who are quite different than us, because their stories are too far away from our own for us to draw immediate meaning from.
I illuminate these tendencies in order to debunk them: first, those who we may consider similar to us, to whom we may judge harshly, possess differences that make them unique and deserving of compassion. Second, instead of absentmindedly forgoing comparison to those who are very different than us, remember that if we use our need for comparison consciously, by comparing ourselves horizontally and with curiosity, it can help us uncover our deeper layers of who we really are.