Monday, February 10, 2014

Compared to What?

I often quote one of my favorite bits of wisdom from an anonymous sage: "When people tell me 'Life is hard', I'm always tempted to ask, 'Compared to what?'" I’ve never understood what there is in the human psyche that makes us assume that life should be easy. I think part of the problem lies in that while we are intricately aware of our own problems and shortcomings, we are not and can never be fully aware of those of others. As a result, life, and our reaction to it, is inevitably one endless string of comparisons in which we are constantly weighing ourselves on some sort of ethereal scale with the things and people around us. 

Depending on our individual emotional makeup, this can either be a healthy and constructive way of judging and adjusting to our position in life, or a constant indication of our own failings and shortcomings, real or imagined. It will come as no great surprise to anyone who has followed these blogs for any length of time to learn I tend strongly toward the latter view.

I spend a great deal of time being angry—often furious—with myself, and for my narcissistic insistence that I am the only one with feelings of falling short in nearly every instance where I compare myself to others. I seem to insist upon finding the bruised apple in every bushel. And I also have a tendency to be somewhat selective in those individuals and situations to whom/which I compare myself—invariably, it is to people/things I envy or want. I seldom compare myself with those who might objectively be considered to be my peers. (Perhaps this may be due in part to the fact that I have always felt myself so apart from others that the very concept of having peers is a little foreign to me.)

That I am not the only person to have difficulty with personal comparisons, or who always feels at the short end of the stick, is hardly surprising. The fact of the matter is that few people have or take the time to consider things outside themselves and their own realm of existence. They constantly compare themselves to others in a million different, wages, possessions (it used to be called "Keeping up with the Joneses")...without really considering the self-defeating nature of doing so.

Eastern cultures are not nearly so concerned with the need for constant comparison; their philosophical bases are very different from ours. They tend to see the world as a level playing field. Western cultures are more likely to see the world as a ladder. It's in our nature to look up the ladder to the next rung. Whatever we have, there's somebody who has more: more money, more talent, more possessions, more power. And we're never happy until we have it, too. (And then when we get it, the cycle repeats itself endlessly.) Comparisons, by their very nature, lead to dissatisfaction. 

Our society is pretty firmly rooted in greed, and as a result, the deck is stacked against the person doing the comparing. We seldom compare ourselves, or even give any consideration, to people who are a few rungs beneath us on the ladder. For far too many people, it's not what we have, it's what we want

For whatever reason, our culture seems to deliberately foster low self esteem. The negative power of television, for example, has no equal. It seems based on the implication that only the young and the beautiful have worth. Everyone on television is young and beautiful, and rich, and knows exactly what to wear and how to act in any given situation. Stare at any primetime soap opera for an hour and then take a look in the mirror. Recent studies have shown—stop the presses!—that low self esteem and many of the serious problems affecting young women, from anorexia to bulimia and on down, can be traced to the false ideals of "attractiveness" they're constantly exposed to on TV.  Wow! Talk about an "I didn't see that one coming" revelation! 

And men are not immune. Why do you think spammers make fortunes on products guaranteed to "make her scream with pleasure" (pardon me while I projectile-vomit)? That men love porn is hardly a revelation, yet even though the men in porn movies are not the intended focus of attention, they always seem to be far above average in the "endowment" department. How can poor Sam Schlub, after watching a porn flick, expect to compete?

Comparisons are an integral and important part of life when we use them as helpful tools rather than immutable rules. So it’s time we began putting things in perspective. We can start with the simple realization comparisons should not be considered contests. Each of us is only one human being trying to measure ourselves against nearly seven billion others. And with those odds, there's absolutely no contest: you're gonna lose. A little more self-acceptance would vastly relieve the unnecessary pressures we exert upon ourselves every day, and greatly simplify our lives.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

You hit on many a good thing here, D. I found myself watching a great deal of BBC TV news while on our recent trip to London and then Dublin. The differences between our culture over there were astounding. It's also something I plan to address in next week's blog posts. Am glad it's not just me who sees differences in cultures.