This month we were inspired by this University of Pennsylvania commencement address by Maria Popova on the soul-sustaining necessity of resisting self-comparison. She deconstructs the process of how we end up being cynical, at a loss of hope. It starts with self-comparison.
Comparing yourself to others is an exercise in futility – but we do it anyway. So why should you stop comparing yourself to others? The writer uses a simple but striking analogy – she likes cycling, and prides herself on being able to go pretty fast. She’s enjoying herself speeding along one bright and beautiful spring morning in New York when she notices another cyclist creeping up behind her, and eventually overtaking her almost effortlessly; the other cyclist is on a motorized bike. She is annoyed, even outraged – until she realizes that her “competitor” is wearing a restaurant uniform: he’s a delivery boy.
The writer explicitly states she’s not saying that being a delivery boy is somehow lesser – only that there are many fields and spheres of value within each person – and we can’t know the depth and breadth of a person’s life and history to even begin to make comparison to ourselves.
“If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless.”
This helplessness comes out of a fixed mindset – assuming that character, intelligence, virtues like beauty and charisma, are inherent, given and static – and resigning to the fact that this is “just our lot in life”.
And this helpless resignation creeps into bitterness about the state of things in the world, and what’s within the realms of possibility for ourselves as individuals, and our collective futures – it breeds cynicism.
“Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition… In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.”
The metaphor of stretching and limbering resonates strongly, for obvious (yoga-related) reasons – but also the “calcification” of the soul. No one wants to be a fossil!
Stretch yourself. Dare to dream. Envision your ideal world, be daring, and be willing to exert yourself to achieve the building of it, even at the risk of failure.
If you’ve not read the article, spoiler alert – the writer forgets about her unfairly advantaged rival, and pedals on, thoroughly enjoying the bright and beautiful spring morning in New York.