On Comparing Ourselves to Others

I oftentimes refer to the act of comparing yourself to someone else as a “cardinal sin.” A cardinal sin is technically one of the seven deadly sins, but my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary also defines it as “a serious error of judgement.” And when you have a mental illness, comparing yourself to the population at large is oftentimes a serious error of judgement.

In almost every category our society uses to determine success I come up short: income, education, employment, the freedom and ability to move about, etc. I’m completely dependent on the government (through SSDI) and my family for any money I receive, I don’t have a college degree and have no hope of getting one (which is one of the bases for my being on disability), I can’t get a job, and I can’t drive a car or use public transportation easily…I can’t even ride a bike anymore. If I’m going someplace I must walk or else get a ride from someone I trust.

It can be depressing for me to compare myself to others, to know that I’ll probably never own a house or raise a family or own my own business or get a college degree or even ever drive a car again. I sometimes joke that the only comparison contest I can win is one in which we compare all of the misery and suffering we’ve been through: I’ve been beaten up because of my illness, I’ve lost countless friends. I nearly lost everything I held dear in life while I was going through ECT. The list of terrible things that have happened to me is long and detailed.

Successfully living with a mental illness depends on a lot of factors, but one of the big ones is your attitude towards it. Anyone with a mental illness has had more than their fair share of suffering, I’m not alone in having my life stripped away from me, in losing most of my friends, in entering the deepest, blackest pits of depression and despair. But I don’t focus on that. I don’t look at the rest of the people in the world and feel sorry for myself. I’m not bitter that I seem to have gone through more than my fair share of suffering. Because I know that everything I’ve gone through has made me who I am today, and I rather like who I am today.

I remember a Link 80 song that I found especially inspiring shortly after I was diagnosed. It’s called “Turn It Around”. As is typical with punk music, you can’t really tell what they’re saying with most of the lyrics and I’ve never really bothered to look them up. All I remember is the refrain: It’s up to us to turn it around.

I wrote that phrase, Turn It Around, on the wall of my studio; to remind me that that’s what I had to do. I had to take all of the misery and suffering I was experiencing and turn it into something positive. I had to make my suffering worthwhile. Turn It Around was my refusal to suffer for no reason, was my acceptance of a higher calling when it comes to suffering, that there’s a purpose for suffering. I didn’t discover that purpose until years later, when I was first asked to speak in front of a NAMI Family-to-Family class; to share my story of how I’d attained my freedom and some semblance of victory over my illness.

We do not suffer in vain. We are put on this earth for a reason.

Everything I’ve gone through has been necessary in bringing me in front of my keyboard this morning to type out these words. I believe I’m a better person because of my mental illness, I believe that I have a better life because of my mental illness. My mental illness is a twisted sort of blessing.

I suppose that’s a strange thing to say. After all, if I believe my mental illness is a blessing, why do I go to such great lengths to treat it? why the discipline? why the tenacity? why the insistence on adhering to my medication schedule so faithfully?

I’ve written before on the importance of purpose in your life with a mental illness. I didn’t know what to do with myself before I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. I was in art school, attending a small Lutheran college in rural Minnesota because I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d tried a big, prestigious art school in Chicago, but it was too much for me – I was in way over my head, the culture didn’t suit me. I liked painting. I thought, at the time, it was what I was put on this planet to do. But I always looked at the date of my graduation with anxiety. Because then I would have to enter the real world, I couldn’t just paint all day long and hang out with my friends.

Perhaps it was a fear of growing up, perhaps it was a fear of having to live under the authority of the natural laws which govern adults but which are largely inapplicable to college students. When people asked me what I was going to do with a painting degree I told them my dream was to just paint all day and hang out with my friends at a cool coffee shop whenever I wasn’t painting. That’s a rare reality for someone with a BFA in painting, it’s hard to make a living as an artist. More specifically, it’s hard to make a living solely as an artist.

I knew the dream was unrealistic, but I think I was an idealist back then. I knew I was clever and perseverant enough that I could eek out a living in the world. But God had different plans for me.

Fast forward through moving back home to go to CU-Denver, fast forward through dropping out every semester because of my failing mental health, fast forward through ECT and my life falling apart, fast forward through the painful process of putting my life back together again and figuring out how I was going to exist on planet earth with my limited means and we arrive at now.

I don’t often compare myself to others. I don’t think it’s a fair thing to do. Comparing myself to someone else is like comparing apples to oranges. They’re both fruit but they’re totally different kinds of fruit. We’re all humans, but we’re all totally different kinds of humans.

I avoid comparing myself to others because it’s all so dependent on my mood – I can take the high and haughty road and think that they haven’t been through as much pain and suffering as me and therefore will never truly understand what life’s all about; or I can take the low and dirty road and think that they’ve got it easy, they have college degrees and jobs, they have cars and bright futures ahead of them and I have nothing to look forward to.

You just never win in comparing yourself to others.

A big theme in my life is trying to see reality for how it really is. I don’t want to tint my worldview with various shades of glasses. People who are bitter and cynical about life have a facet of life correct, but they’re missing vast swaths of other realities out there that make life seem worth living. Similarly, people who see nothing but sunshine and butterflies are seeing only a portion of reality, but they aren’t seeing the complete picture. Life is tragic and beautiful. Life is unfair, both in the sense that you’ll get less than you deserve but also in the sense that you’ll get more than you deserve.

It’s perhaps because of the hallucinations that seeing reality for how it really is has become a major theme in my life. When you’re presented with a reality that’s been skewed so as to add things that look and sound and feel completely real but aren’t actually there, you tend to want to view “pure reality”. I know it’s a hopeless project, but I believe it’s an important project. Because our perception of reality goes far beyond what our senses tell us about reality, it’s also affected by how we interpret what our senses are telling us.

And as such, there’s no objective reality. While most everyone’s senses are telling them that there’s a field of flowers in front of them, some people are thinking about how they ought to buy that land and build a mini mall there, some people are thinking about how their allergies are going to start acting up and how miserable it’s going to be, other people are worried about being stung by the inevitable bees, some people are overcome at the beauty of the field of flowers, and other people are thinking about how cliché it is that there’s a field of flowers.

Present a group of twenty people with a field of flowers and you’re going to end up with a wide variety of interpretations of the reality of those flowers.

And so it is with mental illness. There’s no one objective way to look at mental illness. Some people are completely deflated by their mental illness, other people flat out deny its existence, some people see it as something that makes them wholly unique and embrace all of the idiosyncrasies of their illness, some people see it as a call to action to try to improve the mental health care system. And then there are people like me who see it as a sort of blessing. What’s the reality of mental illness? what’s the truth? None of it and all of it.

My point is that reality is necessarily subjective. Because the people who interpret what their senses are telling them are all unique individuals. When we compare ourselves to others it’s an attempt to get a more “objective” view of reality, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as an objective view of reality. Comparing ourselves to others tells us more about our current state of mind, our current mood, than it does about our objective place in the world. But we often don’t recognize it as such. And that’s what makes it folly, a cardinal sin. Because any comparison we make with another person doesn’t let us see reality for how it really is.

In February, I wrote about how I handle anxiety and worry; about how I sort my worries and fears into two separate categories – useful and useless. I think a similar thing can be done with the ways in which we test reality, the ways in which we try to see what our place in the world is. In comparing ourselves to others, we’re not connecting with our fellow human beings, we’re putting ourselves in a hierarchy: we’re either above or below this person.

With the categories, comes a call-to-action. Something is useful when there’s a call to action. I think it’s slightly different when it comes to comparing ourselves to others. It’s not in the comparison itself that the call to action exists, but rather in the desire to compare. So perhaps, when we find ourselves comparing ourselves to others it’s not the subjective ”am I more successful than they are?” kind of answer we’re looking for. But rather: what trait is missing from our lives that makes us feel as though we must make the comparison in the first place?

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