Of all the mind's activities, comparison seems to be one of the most entrenched. Our sense of identity is honed by comparison, by the ways in which we believe we are more or less than others.
Yesterday, a young man I know was having a really bad day. Some of his friends are going on holiday soon, and he can't afford to join them. Unable to find a job for the last few months, he feels he is lacking the things that would make him valuable; money, a girlfriend, a car. All my suggestions to the contrary, that he is fine just the way he is, were rebuffed as "just words". I understand only too well how it feels to be in that place, where everyone else has, or is, all the things that you haven't, or aren't. It feels so real, because we believe that we really are lacking, by comparison.
Other times, of course, we're the ones who come out favourably. We're better than others, we believe, because we recycle more, or we're more emotionally intelligent, or we're more sensitive, more liberal, less motivated by money, or have better taste. It's easy to sneer, or even subtly feel superior, when we compare ourselves to others who we've deemed to be greedy, or lazy, or racist, or pigheaded, or just not as nice as us. Sometimes, we derive a sense of belonging this way. Us feminists aren't like those awful, sexist men. The music that we like is so much better than the terrible stuff that they listen to.
It's not just about comparing ourselves to others. We also constantly compare ourselves to how we used to be, or how we might be in the future. We run the measuring tape over every aspect of ourselves. Great, I'm so much thinner than I was six months ago. Let's hope I don't put all the weight back on. God, why can't I earn as much as I used to? I need to get my business sorted out. I'm a lot more confident than I was. I'm losing my looks - I've got so many more wrinkles these days. We're constantly weighing ourselves in the scales of the mind, constantly judging ourselves. Whether the comparison is negative or positive doesn't, in the end, make much difference. It's the act of comparison itself which is so corrosive.
Of course, when we start to question this very act, we begin to realise that all comparison is illusory. Whatever evidence we may believe exists to support our claims of inferiority or superiority, there is ultimately no truth behind any of them.
A few months ago, I was walking down a sunny suburban street. An old man was carefully watering his well-tended flowers. We said good morning, and I commented on his beautiful garden. Something about the simplicity, the absolute beauty, the total unaffectedness of his actions struck me. Suddenly, I saw as my mind moved to judge him. I saw all my middle-class, urban intellectual pride. Oh my God, the pride. I saw that there really is no better or worse. There is no better and no worse! In that moment, I simultaneously saw my mother's judgements about me, and my judgements about me, and my vain attempts to feel better by judging others. I saw how harshly I've treated myself, and how harshly I've treated others. I saw the true cruelty of comparison.