Great, By Comparison

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My husband, Steve, and I sometimes take long, wandering, after-dinner walks through our neighborhood and beyond.

I think we’re working off dinner, but I’ve noticed that he is engaged in botanical research. He planted some hibiscus plants last year, and wondered out loud what sorts of fertilizers and watering schedules people used when their plants’ flowers were larger, more brilliantly colored, or appeared pest-free.  None of which his were.

My helpful remarks were limited to, “Uh-huh,” but he did get me thinking.  The comparisons he makes as we rack up the miles is what’s known as an “upward comparison” and the object of his information gathering is to take action that will add to his life (or to the life of his now-thriving plants, but that’s kind of the same thing).

We use comparisons constantly, and what we are hoping – albeit non-consciously – to gain from the effort is a sort of calibration of just how we measure up.  This habit persists in spite of injunctions we hear about “don’t compare yourself to anyone!”  Parents who compare their offspring ( “Did you hear Sheila is married now?  To a doctor?”) are the butt of sitcom jokes. Athletes are encouraged to “compare YOU to YOU!”  There is wisdom behind these warnings, and a wish to guard us from using comparisons in a way that discourages or paralyzes us from trying harder or thinking more positively about our selves or accomplishments.

Back in the 1950s, social psychologists started paying attention to the way we are programmed naturally to compare ourselves to others. They came up with the aptly titled “social comparison theory.”  It explains that we each strive to gain accurate self evaluations through comparison of ourselves with others.  One of the many ways in which we reduce uncertainty about our own competence and to define our self is through comparison.  Alas, one more thing that seems to be hard-wired into our apparatus.

So, there are “upward comparisons” of the sort that saved my husband’s plants, but what about tgoing the other way?  It is embarrassing to admit that some “downward comparisons” make me feel better.  If I run past someone on a trail (which has never actually happened), I might get a boost to my self-esteem, and the thought, “I am going faster than that person,” generalizes to a part of my brain which creates a belief system.

Before long, messages about “You are a fast runner!” start flashing through my cortex. You know the rest.  Einstein said it:  As you think, so shall you be. Running is less arduous and a feeling of accomplishment replaces older messages about slow clomping around the Back Bay.

So-called “upward comparisons” can have the effect of informing us about what we aspire to do.  A writer’s beautiful use of language should inspire others to aim even higher in their craft.  But what if the same passage made a reader feel as though his own writing was so inferior that he stopped trying?

Here is where we have to exert conscious choice to become mature adults:  we choose the direction in which the comparison will lead us.  Comparisons can be made, either upward or downward, but it is our job to use the results of the comparison constructively – to add, rather than to subtract from life’s pleasures and accomplishments.

So, go ahead, smell the roses and compare them to your own, but in doing so, listen in to what you say to yourself – make sure it’s a statement which lets you grow more beautiful and fragrant flowers, and not to criticize yourself for having dandelions in the yard.

It’s our innate nature to compare, but what gets said after that is up to us.  We write the script.

Ruth Wimsatt can be reached at 949-222-3285 or at [email protected]

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