Dear Donagh,

…. I have an awful habit of comparing people.  My son made me aware of it one day.  We were talking about friends of his and I made the remark that [one of them] was a much nicer man than the other, and he said, “Mam, stop! You’re always comparing people.”  It made me think what am I doing.  But doesn’t everyone compare people?  Maybe I do it more.  I've been trying to stop myself since then, but I always end up comparing people again.  My daughter reads me bits from your programme and I like them, so I thought you might have a few words for me….  Thanks very much.  May

Dear May,

Thanks for your letter.  It was nice to see a stamped addressed envelope.  It’s becoming unusual now to get an ordinary letter.  Your daughter will read this reply to you, no doubt. 

Yes, it’s a very interesting thing: the mind slips very easily into the groove of comparing people – and not only people, but places and things and anything whatsoever.  It’s a deeply rooted habit. 

Comparing is a detached way of looking; it’s an assessment.  Probably the most toxic example of it is beauty competitions.  Young women are viewed as aesthetic objects.  It can't mean a lot, even to the young women themselves, because anyone who gets a positive assessment today may get a negative one tomorrow.  Comparison is detached – and therefore superficial.  It’s the judgement of the eye and the mind; it’s not from the heart.  Women (except the few who enter beauty competitions) want nothing to do with it.  Expressing an older and wiser view of women, a great many ballads and love-songs are about girls who are “beyond compare.”  

Not only girls.  Many ballads are about places that are beyond compare: “Oh Carn fair beyond compare I never will forget. / Oh Carn fair beyond compare I think I see it yet.”  And not only places.  Anything that you love is beyond compare.

An only child is the youngest and also the oldest, the best and the worst, the tallest and the smallest…. Where there is only one, comparisons are meaningless.  Anyone or anything that is unique is without compare; you can't line up an individual.  If, instead, you become really present to the individual, you are not comparing them with anyone else; you see them as the person that they are, not as the person they are not.  “When you visualised a man or a woman carefully," wrote Graham Greene, "when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate.  Hate was just a failure of imagination."   By ‘imagination’ he did not mean a facility for seeing what is not there ('fantasy' would be a better word for that); he meant a facility for appreciating what is there.  Comparing is not the same as hating, but it’s the first step in that direction. 

A friend of mine, many years ago, was a gifted student in secondary school, and his other friend was equally gifted.  That was not a problem for the two students, but it was a problem for the father of one of them.  His son got 95% in honours maths in the Leaving Cert, but the other student got 97%.  The father of the first was furious and gave his son a merciless bawling-out.  Good was not good enough; he had to be the best.  He was treating his son not like a son but like a racehorse.  

How depressing to see all life as competition!  What drives it?  It must be some impulse to impose order: to classify everything and set up some order of precedence.  Anything that can be measured is fair game: speed, skill, wealth, intelligence, talent…. Little boys love to kick ball, but very soon some adult is putting them in competition, organising matches and yelling at them from the sideline.  “If it amuses me to do a thing,” I heard someone say, “I don’t see that it much matters whether I do it better than another person.”  Competition brings out the best in you, we often hear.  I wonder how true that really is.  It is certainly not the whole truth, because competition can bring out the worst in you as well.  Why not do something because you love to do it?  Then you will do it even when there is nobody else around.  No comparing.  No competing.  Just enjoyment. 

Comparing is a detached way of looking, as I said.  This detachment is the open door to boredom.  I'm not really seeing any of the people or the things that I’m comparing; I'm looking instead at some abstract measure, like the people who will call a beautiful girl a 10.  How could it fail to lead to boredom?  There’s looking but no seeing.   There’s no connection, no love.  There's just an observer, with charts.  

It’s obvious that you have “ears to hear,” May, because you picked up on the passing remark that your son made.  You asked if I had a few words for you.  I like practical suggestions, so here’s one.  Why not go out to the garden this evening or tomorrow, and sit looking at one particular plant for about 20 minutes?  Stay with the one, don’t go on to another; no comparing.  Look at it as if you were going to do a painting of it later.  Look at it until you see it.  Make a practice of it: that practice could be described as a form of meditation.  Then make a habit of looking at people in the same way.  It works wonders.

God bless, May.  Thanks for your question.



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