Comparatively Speaking

She stood to my left, not more than two feet away. She looked fitter than me. She looked faster. Tougher. More prepared. She was, in every way, my superior. So was the girl to my right. And the girl in front of her. In fact, the entire first corral was filled with girls who were younger, leaner, quicker, more confident, and, if the easy familiarity with which they laughed and jested in the minutes leading up to the race was any indication, less stressed. I was flanked by superior runners.

Relaxed, superior runners.

Of course, I came to these definitive conclusions within seconds of squeezing through the crowds and planting myself in the designated corral. I didn’t know these girls. I had never seen them before in my life. But they were better runners. I could just tell. 

They probably just graduated from college, I surmised as I scanned the ranks. And they probably ran competitively. I continued my hurried survey. Their racing flats look lighter than mine. Their quads are more defined. They don’t have any GU. Why do I have more GU than they do? They probably need less. They probably use what’s on the course. Oh, man. They even GU better than I do. 

The last was a devastating blow. Or, as I like to call it, my customary pre-race, self-defeating assumption.

I’m a comparer. And not in the free-market, price-matching kinda way.

I don’t know when I became such a comparer. I wasn’t always this way. At one point in my life—whether by oblivion or indifference—I operated rather independently of outside persuasions. The constant push-pull of measuring myself to illusory standards (which plaster themselves on friends, social circles, and general cultural merits) hadn’t yet wrapped its sneaky little tendrils around my consciousness. If I wanted to wear my favorite “The Great One: Gretzky #99” t-shirt from the boy’s section at Target, I wore it, even though it was two sizes too big and perhaps the ugliest t-shirt on the face of the earth. Forget what the cool girls were wearing. And, anyway, what cool girls? I was too busy reading Nancy Drew books and listening to Michael W. Smith and Roberta Flack (separate albums—they never collaborated, sadly) and concocting surprisingly dry theatrical productions (think G-rated Monty Python) in our unfinished basement to care if any of those things were cool or not. I just did them without regard to who else was joining in or where I ranked on the proficiency scale.

Comparatively SpeakingPerhaps it was simply the protective bubble of youth, but I came into the comparative life rather late. I know because I had friends who became comparers before I did. They were acutely aware of a measuring stick that I couldn’t see, and—even worse—the tick marks weren’t inches or centimeters or anything universally agreed upon. The entire system hinged on a vague understanding of the suffix “–er.” It was a subversive rating system, one that quietly reshaped unsuspecting friends into critics.

My transformation into a comparer happened slowly, but I remember distinctly the experience that first chipped away at my immunity. I was eleven years old and I was at a tennis lesson. I had just gotten my ears pierced (it was quite a milestone, let me tell you) and was still confined to the comes-with-the-kit set of nickel-free, cubic zirconia earrings. They were glass, but I was proud of them. One of the other girls—a new girl whom I met that afternoon—commented on them. 

“I love your earrings,” she said. 

“Thanks!” I said, adding with a laugh, “I always wear my diamond earrings when I play tennis.”

“Are they real?” she asked.

I laughed again. This girl was hilarious. “But of course!” 

“So are mine,” she said, straight-faced. “Where did you get them?” 

“Oh,” I stumbled, “I was just joking. They’re not real.” 

“Oh…” her voice trailed off and she walked over to her (presumably cooler) group of friends.

Thus the Joneses (of the “Keeping up with…” variety) entered my life. 

It was such an insignificant interaction, but I was forever changed. Something as innocent as new earrings served as the platform upon which an insidious lie made its first, terse campaign speech: “You’re not good enough.” 

It’s crazy how that sneaky statement creeps into everyday activities. Education. Career. Work. Relationships. Health. Exercise. Nutrition. Appearance. The categories are countless, and within those categories are countless subcategories. 

Do you eat vegetables? That person eats more vegetables. Do you eat more vegetables? That person eats organic vegetables. Do you eat organic vegetables? That person pays less for her organic vegetables. Do you pay less for your organic vegetables? That person makes more creative dishes with her organic vegetables. 

And suddenly, it’s the vegetable Olympics, and because you don’t have the collective resources of the entire internet, chances are, you’re gonna finish off the podium.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be (speaking of the Olympics) “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” We should always strive to improve ourselves. The problem arises when we’re driven not by a desire to do well, but the fear that we’re not good enough.

There will always be someone faster, slower, older, younger, richer, poorer, taller, shorter, bigger, smaller, and all the other –er’s out there. This should be comforting, because it means that no matter where we are in life, there will always be someone who can help us improve, and there will always be someone whom we can help. It does not mean that we should tear ourselves apart, put ourselves down, or take ourselves out of the game before it even begins.

We live in a world of comparison. Some of it is healthy. Much of it is not. The danger doesn’t lie in the –er comparison itself. The danger lies in the motivation behind it. 

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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