On the habit of comparing ourselves to others

Comparisons accompany us, whether we like it or not, throughout our lives. On occasions, with devastating effects. So, what's the best way to approach the habit of comparing with each other?

Josep F. Mària, SJ

No one! We should compare ourselves with no one,” he remarked heatedly, thumping the table. Josep, a retired Professor of Theology and a sardonic, patient and thoroughly good-natured Jesuit, was responding to a comment made by a fellow Jesuit as we had dinner in the community's refectory: “We should be careful who we compare ourselves with.” 

Actually, the comparison story starts early on. Even before we decide to compare ourselves, we are already being compared. Indeed, paediatricians often provide our families with information about us in terms of how we relate to average values (weight, height and so on). Thus, the definition of health incorporates comparison: to be healthy is “to be above average”. And if we manage to grow healthily enough, we then go on to be compared on an educational level: “her marks are better than the average for her class.” Competitive sport also involves comparisons. 

In the end, as the sociologist Harmut Rosa puts it, “we no longer run to get somewhere, but to avoid getting left behind.” We need hardly recall the anxiety and the mental and cardiovascular illnesses generated by this bad habit of comparison. 

Even before we decide to compare ourselves, we are already being compared

To keep this habit at bay, we can appeal to a complex definition of intelligence. In fact, the neuroscientist Howard Gardner defines seven types of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. These translate, respectively, as disciplines: languages and letters; maths and sciences; music; technical drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture; sports and dance; philosophy and sociology; psychology, religions and interiority. From this point of view, nobody is good at everything. Trying to compare ourselves with those who have most talent in each of these fields is undoubtedly lethal

Nevertheless, sometimes we shun comparison by wielding the idea that we are (or should be) all equal. But the idea of equality is still indebted to the habit of comparison. Maybe it is better to think that we are unique; we are a unique combination of the seven intelligences. And that growing is about developing all of them (with a certain amount of specialisation) in a process that must be piloted by each one of us, putting ourselves at the service of others instead of comparing ourselves with them

The man who considers himself superior, inferior or even equal to another man does not understand reality (Buddhist Sutra).

He who stands on tiptoe does not stand. He who takes long strides does not walk. He who shows off does not shine; he who becomes proud does not become illustrious; he who fights does not gain merit; he who glories does not become a warlord (Daodejing 24)

Give a man goals to achieve and he will not stop to think whether he is happy or not (George Bernard Shaw).

Jesus called the twelve and said to them, "You know that those who appear as rulers of the nations rule them as if they were their masters, and that great personages keep them under their power. But it must not be so among you: whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first must be slave of all, like the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for all" (Mc 10:42-45).

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