“Comparisons are odious.”




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So said Christopher Marlowe, wrapping a very big, important concept into three short words. To give credit where it is due, I came across this quote while reading Madeleine L’Engle — Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, a charming, compelling  compilation of  anecdotes from lectures and workshops given by this remarkable woman who was a consummate storyteller, woman of faith, teacher, and friend to everyone she encountered.

The beauty of short, pithy phrases is that they are remember-able as well as memorable, and when it comes to comparisons, I need a short phrase that comes to mind easily! Even now, all these years gone by, well into what should be “elder wisdom,” I am often tempted to compare myself and my accomplishments to others and their accomplishments.

Why, just why, is it that we are so often tempted to compare? Rationally, I know better. Truly. And yet. There they are, those little thoughts creeping through the cracks in my confidence.  Person X is thinner than I am, or Person Y gave a better report than I did, or Person Z manages to accomplish much more than I do, or (this is the one that stings the most) Person X² “has it all together.” (Whatever that means, but also meaning, of course, that I do not…)

Yup, the Inner Gremlins are having a field day! The flaws in this kind of “reasoning” are so painfully obvious. Objectivity is taking a very long lunch break. Here’s the thing: any time we compare — well, most times, if not all — we are comparing our “insides” to someone else’s “outsides.” We know what we are feeling, but we compare that to what we are seeing in someone else. Even if comparison were a good technique to use, we’ve set ourselves up with a faulty research model, because we are comparing “apples to oranges,” as it were, not “apples to apples,” which would at least would make the comparison valid.

The question remains: Why do we do this?

There are some good reasons. We have to figure out how we feel about things. This is the source of judging, a necessary process as we make sense of the world and our place within it. Judgment becomes problematical when we generalize that how we feel about things is how everyone else ought to feel about them, as well.

Comparison is judgment’s first cousin. Sometimes we’re just plain stumped about how to do something, so we look around us and see how others manage to do what seems to be eluding us. Balancing motherhood with everything else women need and want to do is a perfect, poignant example. As a young mother, I was totally overwhelmed with all the roles expected of me, let alone the other things that I personally wanted to do. Where to start? Since I had no idea, I looked around me and observed how others were handling similar situations. So far so good, a reasonable coping mechanism.

But here’s the thing: I could see only the outward manifestations of others’ “solutions.” I remember one woman, in particular. Just how was it possible that she was a working artist, putting out all manner of ceramic creations, with a new baby? As I compared myself to her, I berated myself for my fatigue, for my lack of accomplishments. There were all her imaginative clay pots and cups. All I saw in my world were piles of diapers and a messy kitchen. (Note that comparing tends to blot out contradictory evidence, as well. My life was far more than just ” piles of diapers and a messy kitchen,” but that’s where comparing placed my focus.) Years later I learned that this woman was dealing with clinical depression during that very time, her marriage crumbling, her life falling apart. She hid it well. All I saw was the art and her smiling face. Outsides (hers) to insides (mine) . . .

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to totally avoid the temptation to compare. Therefore, I’ll keep this pithy little quote handy, ready to remind me of the futility of the process: “Comparisons are odious.”  I like, too, the inclusion of the word “odious,” such a deliciously icky term, humorously coaxing me to abandon this fool’s errand. I am what I am; I do my best… That is enough, no comparison needed.

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