Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It's Unwise to Compare - But It's Human Nature

One of my former mentors was fond of using that expression - "It's unwise to compare." And I believe that using it as a guideline has helped me retain a positive perspective and outlook. Because within me, and probably all of us, is a nagging feeling that someone is doing better than I am, someone is getting an advantage, someone is luckier, etc.

The examples above are all examples of "comparing up," that is, comparing ourselves to someone doing better than we are. And this common human trait contains within it the seeds of jealousy and envy, the drive to "keep up with the Joneses" in the pursuit of material wealth, and the uneasy feeling that "the grass is always greener in the other fellow's yard." There is even a common phenomenon called "schadenfreude," a German expression meaning "happiness about the misfortune of others." Why else would shows like Cops or Jerry Springer be so popular, or why would we enjoy watching a criminal being taken off to jail in what has come to be known as a "perp walk"?

These feelings have been around so long that the bible even covers it. In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, he states that "measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, they are not wise."

You can always tell when someone has a weak argument, as soon as you hear the phrase, "but what about so and so" creeping into the discussion. It means you're about to hear a comparison that is supposed to make your point invalid. For years, a discussion about business ethics could be sidetracked by, "but what about Enron." For over a decade, any discussion about government spending would involve the proponent of more spending saying, "If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can (fill in your pet project here)..."

So why am I bringing up this philosophical point at this time? Because I'm still thinking about my business acquaintance who died... and my reaction to it. You see, ever since my mentor cautioned me against comparisons, I resolved that I would try very hard to only allow myself to "compare down," that is, to acknowledge the pain of the less fortunate, and thereby count my own blessings... as in "there but for the grace of God go I."

After many years of practice, this now comes pretty naturally to Melanie (the Platinum wife) and me. Even when we were having a rough go of it ourselves, if we saw someone on TV who had lost a loved one, someone with a very sick or dying child, or someone themselves battling a pernicious disease, we would look at each other and say, "we don't have a care in the world." So it just came naturally the other day when I heard the news of that death.

So boomers, beware. One of the things about getting older is that there seem to be more opportunities to complain. Comparing the way things are to "the good ole days." Comparing the way I feel now to the way I felt in my prime. And there are still all those other ways to "compare up," as described above, that can apply at any age.

My mother used to spend the winter in Florida at one of those golf condo complexes. And I'll never forget the year I was visiting and the residents were at war with one another over whether the golf course tee times should be changed from seven to eight minutes apart... I'm not kidding.

Melanie's mother (which I guess makes her "the Platinum mother-in-law") often relates to us how much complaining goes on in her senior condo complex. This was a place designed to be as care free as possible, but she has to guard herself against entering into it. This phenomenon is so pervasive that the popular Seinfeld TV Series did several episodes about the microscopic lives of the elderly residents of "Del Boca Vista," where Jerry's parents lived.

Melanie works with a lot of 70-somethings and 80-somethings, and she has a theory that as we get older, our natural character traits and tendencies get stronger, and I think it's probably true. So the time to be vigilant, boomers, is now. This is another good opportunity for some "accountability buddies," (as described in "If You're Serious About Changing a Behavior - Do This!") to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Back in February I wrote an article called "Comparing Ailments - Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen," which described a very popular elderly resident of a nursing home I used to visit. That guy was positive, engaging, and appreciative, and was easily the most popular resident of the home. He lived in a place that usually smelled like urine, and from what little I knew, he had more than his share of ailments. But his positiveness stood out in stark contrast to most of the other residents. Thinking about him brings me back to that feeling again - "I don't have a care in the world." - Bob

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