Comparison, the thief of joy

Rick Whittle on Unsplash

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

It is the comparisons we make to others that lead to inertia and self-doubt. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as ‘better’; more talented, more together, more in tune. There are the comparisons to those we perceive as somehow inferior; unworthy, deficient. Both of these are pre-judgements made on partial information, internal bias and projections onto others of who we imagine ourselves to be. Comparisons are what drive our deluded oscillations between self-doubt and self-importance.

I notice in myself that it is the comparison ‘looking down’ that has more of an immediate, reactive influence on future actions. I notice a reactivity to push away from a person or group I deem as ‘not me’. This reactivity is triggered by a delusional sense of superiority established by my brittle ego to reinforce its own self-importance. This is an instinct to separate myself, as if saying, “No, that isn’t me”, even if my participation in this group will help me to achieve the life I desire. Ultimately it is an act of self-sabotage.

In a similar, but different way, my comparison to someone I perceive as ‘better’, doesn’t necessarily pull me in that direction, but rather stops me in my tracks. It invites parts of me to replay all the reasons that I won’t be able to do the ‘thing’ that I idealise in that individual, and so prevents me from trying and possibly failing to live up to the fantasy. Both reactions are a desire for stasis, a desire to keep the fantasy in tact. This is a warped desire governed by a fear of the fantasy being lost, which in turn will reveal subsequent feelings of shame and deficiency.

The look upward, to this person I admire (or envy) is full of projections of my own desires for a certain lifestyle or vocation that I believe this person represents. If the comparison “downward” is met with a shout of “No!”, an act of separation, then it would be natural to assume that my desire and coveting of the person I am placing on a pedestal of comparison would lead to actions of identification. An identification made possible by ‘following in their footsteps’ via actions that I believe will take me to a similar place.

This is where the problem of comparison becomes glaring. My comparisons stem from the projections and identifications that are the realm of my story of self, my ego. Both the look downward and upward are like two opposing magnets holding me in a purgatory of inertia and isolation. Whilst the downward comparison separates and isolates; keeps me safe in a narrow, comfortable conception of who I am; the opposing desire for identification results in a kind of stuck-ness and despair. Despair that I am not already that which I wish myself to be. My comparison may reflect a desire for change, a looking out to what else is possible, but in reality it is a mirage of projections that keeps me in place; reinforcing and repeating my fantasy narrative of self.

It is this alluring mirage that disorients and deludes. We become like the lost person in the desert, walking toward an imagined salvation on the horizon that isn’t there. The person we admire is a culmination of an infinite number of steps that even if we could map them, would be impossible to replicate (i.e. you couldn’t return to when they were born, or the social environment that shaped them). This is not to say that we can’t be inspired by those who model what we value. However, whilst the inspiration can act as a catalyst for change, it also opens the chasm between where we are and how far we have to go. It is following this opening that we can fall into the comparisons that sabotage our desires for change.

The fantasies that we have of others represent the fantasies that we have of ourselves. Paradoxically the only way to move toward our ideal, to change, is to forget the fantasy altogether. The notion of following in someone’s footsteps implies that there are footsteps to follow. The truth is that there are no footsteps or path. The beginning of change is a realised capacity to move, the initial direction being less important as it will be corrected again and again by errors and false starts. What is necessary is a first step into the unknown. It is this lack of direction, and resulting anxiety, that leads to the inevitable temptation to indulge in the desire for clarity and certainty – desires that become expressed in our habits of comparison.

I have wished for most of my life that someone would show me the way, that there were coat-tails I could ride on. Experience time and again has shown me that this is completely at odds with my deeper desire for self-determination. To follow in someone else’s footsteps or to ride their coat-tails is to be determined by someone else’s path. Advice and reassurance may feel good at the time, but they are temporary salves for the angst that led us to initially seek them – angst to express ourselves in an authentic and original way. In the words of David Whyte:

“People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or a guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like.”

David Whyte, The Three Marriages

What he is saying here is that the development of a vocation or a style of life begins with some kind of inkling, insight, opening – a call. The root of the word vocation comes from the latin vocare which means “call” – but the call is all you get. The flash of inspiration is all you get. There is “no map into the future” beyond that. The only option after hearing this call is to leave the comparisons behind and launch from the contact point available, wherever that may be.

The existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard referred to this as a “Leap of Faith”. Faith is one of those words that is tangled up in so much religious connotation, but at base it means to ‘trust’. To trust in yourself rather than relying on the superfluous reassurances of, and meaningless comparisons to those we think we want to transform into or avoid becoming. This trusting is predicated on a kind of radical self-acceptance. Self-acceptance, so often misunderstood as passivity, but actually meaning a willingness to act on what is here now. Once the comparisons and fantasies have fallen away, we are left with who we are – and no other choice but to act accordingly.

To compare is to measure ourselves against someone else and feel either disillusioned by how we fail to measure up, or deluded by how we feel superior. In a time of almost inescapable social media platforms, which, if nothing else seem designed to prompt comparison; it can be very difficult not to fall into this habit of mind. To equate ourselves with others is to lose our own unique identity. The difficult (and radical) act is to have faith in your own conviction and embark without the map.

Echoes of a dream

Massimo Polelli Calligraphy
Artist: Massimo Polello

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand

W. H. Auden

I dreamt last night that I was on a large boat, a superyacht, with my father. We were standing on the top of the boat in a large dining/ballroom overlooking Sydney Harbour. It was dusk, almost night and the lights to the room were on. The room was panelled with polished wood, and carpeted in a royal red and blue plush with looping gold threads forming a Baroque pattern. It felt very luxurious. My father was complaining about customers who were renting the boat and saying that these overnight trips weren’t worth doing. He had a bottle of champagne that he was holding and he kept his glass full, forgetting to top up mine. He was moving around the boat in a distracted manner, belatedly moving to fill my glass whilst fumbling an apology, the dregs of the champagne hitting my empty glass.

When I woke from this dream my first thoughts were of the luxurious waterfront house we used to live in when I was a child. It was an obscene luxury. My expectation when I first sat to write about the dream was to be reminded of unhappy memories of that place, of nighttime fear and loneliness, of insomnia and sneaking down the stairs to watch rage at 4am, waiting for the dawn to banish my terrors. What unfolded instead was one of my most cherished childhood memories of my father. All of the family at the dinner table, in the dining room overlooking Sydney’s Middle Harbour, my father at the head of the table singing a silly song in a silly voice, laughter ringing out. This is one of my shining exemplars of ‘happy family memory’ and yet it was so long ago, maybe 1997, and in that expanse of time those happy memories, with dad in them, are sparsely dotted along that stretch of time.

I always thought and said to myself that I had a happy, ordinary childhood, but how true was that? There was such dissociation as a teenager: The TV, the playstation, the pornography. What was I trying to block out? Perhaps that is just how teenagers are, the changes and new drives in the body unbearable to wrestle with whilst trapped in the bonds of school and family. Maybe I just tell myself that I had a happy childhood because the opposite conclusion is unbearable. Whilst seeing a Psychoanalyst last year, I shared this belief of a happy childhood, in the guise of presenting a partial belief of having nothing to complain about in my upbringing, as though the comforts and privileges I was surrounded by removed any avenue for aggrievement. By removing this avenue I had frozen a cosmetic conception in place that felt like a betrayal to question or dislodge. Essentially I had erected a rigid taboo that stood as a critical judge against the psychological suffering that in the face of that taboo seemed inexplicable. It was only by questioning those assumptions that a crack appeared in the mask, allowing the beginning of some deeper insight to pour through.

Before my father left the family home, I never had any desire to leave Sydney. I had a deep love for the city all through high school and yearned to return whenever I was away on a family holiday or school trip. Coming back from a trip to a family friends farm and travelling north across the Harbour Bridge, I remember looking up at those iron arches and rivets thinking, ‘thank god we are home’. The desire to leave only came up at the start of Year 12, soon after Dad left. I remember coming home from school early one afternoon in Year 12, standing in the empty kitchen of a different, equally cavernous house and feeling a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness. At that moment, I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here,” and took a series of steps which wouldn’t see me properly settle back in Sydney again until my son was on the way fifteen years later.

What is interesting to note is the timing of this dream. I had a call from the head of a consultancy I applied to on Monday. Since finishing a terrible experience at a start-up in August last year, it has been the only role I have seen that interested me. I hadn’t expected a call back so soon and a part of me felt elated that they were interested in my application. I noticed two parts surface almost immediately: a somatically prominent tired part that felt drained and exhausted straight after the call, and an ‘excited/carried away part’, that ran off imagining grand possibilities and a return to some kind of status. A return to the world of performing, praise, recognition – of doing well! I wouldn’t have called it a polarisation at the time, probably because there was no wrestling internal dialogue, but in hindsight it clearly was. Exhaustion experienced somatically and excitement experienced imaginally; the former pulling down the latter up. Throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening I had an aching jaw. A deep ache, right at the back of my mandibles, in line with and just in front of my ear lobes.

I noted that the timing was interesting as the dream happened on the night following the phone call. I believe that my father in the dream represented the world of work and success in an imaginal or achetypal way. The luxury of the yacht, the view of the harbour, the pouring of the champagne, the apologies that he had nothing left for me. The waking flashback memory of the luxurious house, the image shifting as I wrote, to a rare imprint of a happy family memory with him front and centre. The dream woke me up at about the time they normally do, 430am, but there was no anger or sadness. Rather there was a sense of release and calm, an excitement and anticipation. Writing about the dream whilst my wife and son were still asleep, that happy image of dad, front and centre, fed into and was fed by the images and feelings from the dream. The memory I thought I was going to find when sitting to write (fear, emptiness, loneliness), wasn’t there, and instead I had the unexpected fortune of a cherished memory taking its place,

To come back to the champagne glasses, that image speaks to me as a symbol of my father saying in an apologetic way, “I gave you all I could. I am sorry that is all I had”. A wave of sadness came over me when writing that sentence and yet this is where the calm seems to emanate from. There was a recognition of a shift, an acceptance and forgiveness that says, “OK”, and says so in a non-begrudging way. Says it in a way that indicates that I have to live without his explicit guidance but that I have to hold the good of my father with me. The good that is represented in that image of him, front and centre, sitting at the head of the table, his back to the window, the harbour shrouded in dusk behind him and the sound of laughter ringing out.