It is no secret to anyone with a computer or smart phone that today we live in a society fueled by comparison. With all of the advances in technology and social media, we can know not only what our family and friends are doing, but what their family and friends are doing as well. I can go online and, in one click, I am watching the Kodak moments of some stranger’s life.
“This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife?” ~Talking Heads Water Flowing Underground
I remember the first person of whose online life I was jealous. Her name was Michelle. I didn’t even know her. I had found her as a friend-of-a-friend on Myspace. She lived in LA. She took selfies before “selfie” was a word. She was always with a group of beautiful people. She was always at beautiful places. She was always dressed up and going to parties. And how did I know this? Because she posted it online and painted a picture of a life that I envied. At the time I was in grad school in the DC metro area, struggling to pay bills, and most of my friends in the area had already finished their programs and moved elsewhere to begin their postdoc work or worse a real job. I was alone and drudging through my ordinary life so I opted to live vicariously through Michelle’s glamourous LA life. She had it all. She was going places. I can’t even remember her last name.
Ten years later, I wish I could say I’ve learned. But I still find myself going online and feeling left out when I see friends whom I would like to have in photos together. I find myself feeling unpopular when I see parties to which I was not invited. I find myself feeling unfortunate or uncultured when I see “friends” at destinations around the world to which I have never been. I find myself feeling poor or deprived when I see the beautiful homes and things of my friends which I too would like to have. I find myself seeing everyone else’s friends, activities, houses, children, food, and travel and wondering, “what am I doing wrong?”
Before I made the choice to take this journey, some days it was a struggle and I couldn’t get out of bed. Some days it was so hard to be around others with their happy lives and families that I hid out alone. Some days I felt so beaten down by the expectations of a “happy life” that I resigned myself to the status quo and just put one foot in front of the other.
But where is the glory in that life?
I want to know what fuels me to get up day after day and keep breathing.
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live!” The Captain, Wall-E
In human development, it is often by the age of 11-13 when we begin to assert our independence. We begin to seek out what makes us unique. But in this quest for uniqueness, we also seek to find what unites us with others. By the time we hit puberty, developing an identity and sense of self that resonates with us yet bonds us to a group is an all encompassing quest. This has been particularly unique with the millennial generation.
Allow me to generalize for a moment.
Millennials were raised to believe we were exceptional, we were winners, we were… entitled. Baby Boomer parents made sure to do everything they could to protect us from the harsh realities of the real world all the while encouraging us to try, to succeed, to question, and to achieve. Since birth we were trained to do everything for an audience or for a reward. Is it any wonder that we look outside ourselves for approval? We want and are able to connect to everyone in order to validate our specialness. Friendster, Myspace, and Facebook were created for us! The concept of privacy is completely foreign to most of us. To be private is not to belong. And not to belong means we are alone which makes us somehow forgettable – something we were told, by our own sense of entitlement, we could not be. We only read books and attend concerts if there are people with which to share them. We only buy things if we can show others. We only go places if we can tell others. We are basically living one big game of show-and-tell.
But what happens to our happiness when we are constantly focusing on showing and telling our lives instead of actually living them?
“The greatest disappointment for any celebrity would be to get dressed up, go out, get photographed, and no one runs your photo… It means it didn’t happen!” ~Janice Min (Editor in Chief, Us Weekly)
Thanks to the hospitality of friends and happening to be in the right place at the right time, I had the pleasure of attending an Indian wedding in Mumbai this past weekend. If you don’t know, in Indian culture, the wedding is the epitome of opulence and self-aggrandizement for the sake of others. Not only is extended-extended family part of the affair, but entire businesses, towns, and networks are invited to the celebration. They are such expensive, dramatic, and elaborate events that a particularly harsh Indian insult is “May you have 10 daughters and may they all marry well.”
With this expectation in mind, I was still wholly unprepared for the magnificence awaiting me in Bombay. The family was one of the top ten wealthiest families in all of India and the guest list included the likes of The Vice President of India, Mohammad Amid Ansari, the former head of the Tata Group, Mr. Ratan Tata, and the wealthiest woman in all of India, Savitri Jindal. It was, of course, a three-day affair hosted at the Taj Mahal Palace – the swankiest and most well known locale in all the city. Fresh flowers made up entire walls and ceilings while large bouquets decorated every other surface. There were rooms and rooms of buffets boasting food and desserts with selections from all areas of the India and around the world. The saris and lahengas were silk. The diamonds were dazzling. The gold was 24 carat. And the new worth of the receiving line was two and three times that of some entire nation’s GDP. And the attitude was, “Be seen.” And through it all, I found myself unable to put my phone down as I posted pictures in real time to all of my friends back home.
Then it hit me…
I had been sucked into the comparison trap. I was out traveling the world. I was doing cool things. I was meeting cool people. I was at the event of the year in Mumbai and I wanted everyone to know. Because if they didn’t know about it, if they didn’t see it, if they didn’t like and comment on it, did it even happen? I was sharing pictures that screamed, “Look what I’m doing! Isn’t this amazing? See what you’re missing.” And it made me sick to my stomach. I was so absorbed in sharing what I was experiencing, that I wasn’t actually experiencing it. I was surrounded by hundreds of beautiful, powerful, and interesting people and I was worried about Snapchat?! I had the opportunity to experience a once in a lifetime event and I was thinking about which picture would look best on Instagram?! Disgusted with myself, I put my phone away and joined a table of mixed company and introduced myself, “I am BorneBackCeaselessly. I’m a high school teacher from the United States. Right now I’m on sabbatical traveling the world and writing a book.” Bam! A connection is made. I met a Harvard professor who wrote a book with Thich Nhat Hahn. I met a grandmotherly Indian woman who invited me to visit her in Chennai. I met friends who lived in the next city to which I would be traveling. I spoke about spirituality, art, music, mindfulness, meditation, education, politics, and family. And I didn’t share a word of it online… well until now. :-/
“In spite of the proliferation of media right now, people feel lost. They don’t know where to go for dialogue. There’s a desire for communication. A desire to be heard.” ~Joshua Beckman
I may have learned my lesson that day. But comparison is a cruel and powerful mistress. I still long for validation. I crave a witness to my life. I desire a friend/lover/confidant who is interested in the details of my day-to-day life even when it is not Instagram worthy. I yearn for a connection that surpasses likes and comments. I want to be seen and heard.
Isn’t that what we all seek?
So we follow strangers on Instagram. We “friend” acquaintances on Facebook. We watch Snapstories of people two and three degrees removed from our circle. We refresh tweets searching for likes, replies, and retweets. All in an effort to gauge if we measure up to how everyone else is giving and receiving love. But here is where the comparison falls short. We cannot find fulfillment in recognition. We cannot find love in exposure. Even millennials trained to seek out approval know, deep down in our entitled little souls, there is more to life than this. And no amount of comparison will fill this need.
Ultimately, I think we compare ourselves to others because we want to know that we are ok. That we fit in. That we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. And when you dig even one layer deeper in this comparison, we see that everyone is afraid for the same things. And everyone is longing for the same things.
We want to be seen.
We want to know that we matter.
We want to be loved and accepted as we are.
These truths which we all know in our hearts are the same truths which we seek out from others. We seek a companion who conveys to us, “I see you.” We seek a friend who says, “I am here for you. You can count on me.” We seek a partner who tells us, “You are enough.”
I am digging deep into my psyche as I write my blog and my memoirs. This is my own way to open myself up to connection, even if only figuratively. Because in every sentence and experience I share, there will be one person for whom the words speak truth: Me.
And here, my friends, is where comparison ends and complete acceptance starts.