It’s All Relative



Comparison is the thief of joy

                — Theodore Roosevelt


It’s an animal trait, which human animals share, to make comparisons among ourselves. A canine animal, when meeting another, will size the other up. A human animal will do the same. A woman will size up other women with whom she might be compared, and a man will do the same—or a boy, or a girl. We learn this early, and we do it often.

Most of the time these comparisons are fleeting and virtually unconscious. A quick glance, a quick conclusion, and no more thought about it. But other times the game is serious, with high stakes riding on the outcome. Sometimes there are winners and losers, with consequences attached to both.

Normal human beings have a sense of self worth. We rate ourselves, constantly rate ourselves, and our ratings may rise high or fall low. They may also get stuck in a high-risen or low-fallen position. You likely can think of examples of famous people stuck in the high-risen view of themselves, or the low-risen as well.

These self-ratings come from within us, from our thoughts and feelings, our reactions to daily events. They may be driven by external influences, by what we hear from others as it relates to ourselves. One negative comment we hear may sometimes hang around all day and into the night. These may be driven by comparisons such as: “He’s smarter than me,” “I’m prettier than her,” “We’re better than them.” In a more tribal society, including human ones, there are a lot of “we’re better than them’s.”

One’s dependence on favorable comparisons is a slippery slope. Except is rare circumstances, all comparisons are relative. Most of us are better than some, and inferior to many others. 

In the 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim of 2016, I finished in 2 hours and 36 minutes. Now, the great majority of people who swim can’t swim across the Chesapeake Bay at all. I’m a better swimmer than most people, then, at least in terms of swimming four miles in open water. But the swimmer who won this race finished in 1 hour and 24 minutes. In one way of speaking, that puts my effort to shame. But much depends on the comparison. That winner was 20 years old, and I was more than three times his age. When compared with others in my own age group, I did quite well. All is relative.

I love photography, especially nature, wildlife, and landscape photography. When I post my pictures on Facebook, friends comment on how they love them, and say I’m a good photographer. But I mustn’t take that too seriously. I know and follow some really good photographers, and I’m very average compared to them. My friends may not be aware of this comparison, but I am. All is relative.

When I took the standard IQ test on entering college, my score was pretty high and it made me feel good. I do consider myself to be fairly smart, and I do meet people I think are not as smart as I am. But I’ve also met plenty of people, and heard of many others, that are much smarter. There are other people whose smartness is in a different league than mine. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Fareed Zakaria, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Barack Obama, Charlie Rose, David Remnick, many others. All is relative.

There are two approaches we can take to this relativity. On the one hand, we can try to keep ourselves in situations where we compare favorably, as many do. We can flaunt those easy comparisons to make ourselves feel good. We can avoid situations where we might be compared unfavorably, keeping in the spotlight and avoiding any shadows. Play to our fans and avoid any critics.

On the other hand, we can deliberately do the opposite. We can seek the company of people who are smarter than us, faster than us, better spoken and better looking, better dressed, whatever all the “betters” are. We can learn to be comfortable in situations where we look up to others, and use the comparisons to learn better ways, and to motivate ourselves toward improvement.

You see, it’s always better for me to swim with the faster swimmers, feel challenged and inadequate, and struggle to keep up, than to swim easy with slower swimmers and feel superior. If I can, I want to rub shoulders with some of those really smart people and watch them perform. 

I knew a really smart man once. He was a brilliant speaker and writer, read scholarly works in several languages, and in addition possessed great social and interpersonal skills. As a student of his, my admiration came close to worship. But the remarkable thing about this man was his humility and down-to-earth-ness. He believed there was something he could learn from every person he met, regardless of their station in life. He could meet a janitor or cab driver or hotel maid and find something of value this person could tell him. Whatever it was that you knew and he didn’t, he would find it out and learn from it. He was a great man, but there was a humility about him that meant he had no need to prove himself better than anyone he met. 

You might say this is easier if you’re at the top of the heap and have less to prove. You might say it’s harder if you’re at the bottom of the heap and have more to prove. The point is not to think in terms of proving anything, other than to yourself. The point is that all is relative anyway, and that the most meaningful competition is all within ourselves.

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