Looking over the hedge at our neighbour’s lawn is common practice. Their full-blooming roses, well-painted fences and that greener than green grass. It’s not fair, we fume, looking back at our own drooping blooms, faded fences and patchy grass.
When did we get so good at comparing? And why do we only tend to compare upwards?
Life under capitalism brings inevitable behaviours like this. But I sense that it’s a bit deeper than that, and with a longer history. Humans look around them and then look within, perhaps our species always has. Did our Neanderthal ancestors compare bison kills with the cave next door (the cave that was slightly bigger and always tidier)? Seems likely.
Many years ago when I stood on the podium (having won a silver medal in the Northern Irish schools’ 100-metres sprint competition) where did I look? You guessed it – up at the girl who stood on the winning level, gold medal around her neck. She was faster, more successful, just better than me. I was furious (competitiveness in athletics is a given but I could’ve been nicer that day). I don’t even remember the girl who stood below me with a bronze medal. Perhaps she looked upwards that day too? Or maybe she was delighted with her achievement and grateful for her medal, no matter the colour.
When we use a scale of measurement like this, be it medals or some other measure of success, we fall into the trap of comparison. And this trap is clenched tightly around our hopes, fears, self-esteem, even our very identity. If I looked like her, we think, or if I had success like him – then I’d be happy. Then I’d know who I was.
But if we move towards outward vision, turn comparison into compassion, the world tilts on its axis. Suddenly we feel content. Suddenly we see that others might need our help. And those seemingly perfect lives, those greener grasses, are not so green after all. And gratitude is the inevitable result.
Moving from comparison towards gratitude is a journey and often takes many small steps. But it’s a worthy destination and along the way we find compassion and contentment in equal measure.