Against Comparison

From a very young age, we adopt what can be called a comparative mindset. As children, we compare our grades with our classmates, or compare our parents’ treatment with our siblings. In adulthood, we define our sense of wealth with those around us, from the cars we drive to the clothes we wear; or, we understand how well we are doing in life with our peers. The implicit problem in all this, which is by no means a revelation, is that we fail to look at ourselves as we are. We become, in the words of Krishnamurti, ‘second hand people’.

David Bohm grasps the essential problem in his insightful collection of essays titled On Dialogue. Comparison does not just change what we think, but also how we think. If the content of thought is explicit,then its structure is implicit. A metaphorical equivalent would be the difference between the water and the current of a stream. Water is the content, but the current is the structure, always guiding and shaping the content, yet operating unseen. In seeing how difficult it is to even think about life except through comparison, we see the extent of how the implicit structure of thought operates. For instance, if we cannot think about what it means to be successful, to be rich, to be smart, or to be strong without comparing it to other people, it gives us an indication of just how conditioned our thinking is.

Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1597-1599.

The danger of thought structured by comparative thinking is that your personality becomes second-hand (I am smart because he is dumb, I am happy because my car is more expensive than his); experiences become echoes (the sunrise yesterday was more vibrant, the rain last night was more soothing); and people lose their dignity (you are dumb because I am smarter, you are unworthy because we were both born poor but I became rich). In short, life becomes derivative, experiences become shadows, and people become insubstantial.

This comparative mindset empties the world of so much joy. ‘You say this is better than that; you compare yourself with somebody who is more beautiful, who is more clever’, writes Krishnamurti in his altogether heartfelt and moving collection of talks On Love & Loneliness.

Comparative judgment makes the mind dull; it does not sharpen the mind, it does not make the mind comprehensive, inclusive, because, when you are all the time comparing, what has happened? You see the sunset, and you immediately compare that sunset with the previous sunset.

When we compare, we do not see the utter uniqueness and singularity of life. By comparing, we dull the vitality of experiences by reducing it as another number in a sequence.

When you are comparing, you are really not looking at the sunset which is there, but you are looking at it in order to compare it with something else. So comparison prevents you from looking fully.

By comparing, we are not looking fully because we only see something in relation to something else. Everything becomes an echo, a reflection, or a repetition.

To really look at the sunset, there must be no comparison; to really look at you, I must not compare you with someone else.

This is the unparalleled majesty of love. When we truly love someone, we do not see them in comparison with other people. This is why the disgruntled lovers’ remark that they are not as beautiful as previous partners, or they are not smart or rich enough entirely misses the point. In love, there is no comparison. The beloved is uniquely, irreducibly themselves. To see with lovers’ eyes is to see freshly, to see without comparison. As Krishnamurti says, ‘when I look at you without comparing, I am only concerned with you, not with someone else’. In this radical act, dignity is restored.

The inherent danger in comparison is that it stops us from seeing things for what they are, whether it be a sunset, a partner, or even ourselves. After a lifetime of conditioning it is hard to think differently, but if we are to see things justly and accord the respect each moment deserves, we must look anew, with fresh eyes, and see things for what they are on their own terms, and not in comparison with something else.

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