Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, October 22, 2022 - Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

“Comparison is the thief of joy," Teddy Roosevelt once said. Mark Twain felt even more strongly about it, exchanging the word death for thief. 

Before ever hearing of these quotes, I learned the general idea of this thought from my husband, quoting a family member who often said, “Don’t compare your insides with other people's outsides.” This one I felt to be far more user-friendly than those by Roosevelt or Twain. Sometimes poetry isn’t the most efficient educational tool.

When comparing ourselves to others, we often do it with a mind to motivate ourselves to be better. People in a position of mentorship, like parents or teachers, often slip into the mistake of comparing us to others in order to get us to work harder. The system of education itself, with its standardized tests and tradition of grading, is one giant paradigm of comparison from which most all of us feel the pressures of having fallen short.

Religion, too, often asks us to compare ourselves to the masters while at the same time basically telling us not to bother because we will never be like them.

Social media is, of course, a devil of human comparison. What’s worse is that through this platform we are often presented with only an idealized version of other people, whose use of tools like facial filters and virtual fashion create an even greater chasm between how we view them as compared to how we view ourselves. Some online influencers present lives of such interest and ease and perfection and wealth that they seem to mock our basic-ness with every bit of content they post. 

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here. Comparison is not a particularly useful tool for personal advancement. While we often use it to accomplish that very thing, it is a double-edged sword. And I would argue one blade is much deadlier than the other. 

However, comparison is inevitable. Because we are a communal species, it is impossible not to compare ourselves with either our predecessors or our contemporaries. Comparison tells us how we are doing. The pitfalls are so great, though, that we must develop resiliency and balance in our use of it so that we do not to come to the heightened risk of depression or anxiety which often befalls those who are constantly seeking to not just be better than earlier versions of themselves but better than all others. 

I have to say, as much as I love social media, I do find that it makes me anxious and depressed if I’m on it too much. I don’t consciously mean to compare myself with others. But subconsciously that comparison is inevitably being made every time I look at a video designed to teach me how to do something better. If I’m not careful, I’m subliminally notifying myself of my inadequacy by overdoing it. But we all need teachers. The betterment of humanity is accomplished only through education and mentorship. 

Personally, I feel the key is in attempting to learn without comparing ourselves with others. To engage in comparison only with ourselves. To focus on how we keep getting better and encouraging ourselves as we continue to learn and grow. To insulate ourselves from needing to be as good as, as pretty as, as strong as, as smart as, as rich as, as lettered as, or as fashionable as, other people by shifting the inner narrative just a tick. 

One of the greatest things that I have learned personally from my study of Islam is the expression “mashallah.” Its literal translation means “God willed it.” But its traditional use is a term of congratulations towards someone else for an achievement or success, sometimes against truly unfavorable odds. To say mashallah is an act against the feelings of envy. 

Personally, I feel that it is the perfect antidote when used as a trained reflexive response to feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy as compared to other people. Whenever I am feeling inadequate to someone else’s success, it is my intent to shift my inner narrative to that of congratulations for them rather than deprecation of myself. 

As it was described to me, mashallah acts like a prayer that tells the angels to include us in the loop of the successful person's joy. The alternative is an inner resentment that pinches us off from it. 

I found this to be an earth-shattering thought, really. And it ties in with what others have said regarding the law of attraction. We have to be thinking and feeling in the direction of where we wish to go in order to get there, not sulking about where we are. 

So, spend less time on social media and eschew the desire to compare yourself with others. Congratulate their successes, not with just your words but your heart. You’ll find that in doing so, you’ll not just feel better, you’ll be better.

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