99 Problems

Published on December 15th, 2015 | by Asha French

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ASHA FRENCH Gets Caught in THE COMPARISON TRAP

I fell into it. The “some people” trap. It was easy, as it seems to be the only path by which we are supposed to attain gratitude for the things we have. Comparisons, we are taught when we are very young, are useful both for motivation (some people make straight A’s and you should be like them) and gratitude (some people have nothing; look at how much you have). The truth is that comparisons are the source of so much misery, the source of so much greed.

This is how it happened. My daughter was asking for a toy again, as she is wont to do daily. I was telling her that she’d just bought new toys the day before. I was telling her that she should play with her own toys. And then she spoke to me as if she were a Fortune 500 CEO: “I want MORE!!!” I froze and said what came naturally, “Some kids don’t have any toys at all! You should be grateful for the toys you have.”

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photo by Peter Lee, flickr / creative commons

I hated hotdogs when I was little. Maybe because they’d worn out their welcome as dinner guests, as busy as my parents were. When my brothers and I would protest the dinner that was more redundant than tasty, my father would say, “Kids in Africa don’t have any food at all.”

He said this with some mirth; he was being ironic. A child of the 60s and an avid reader of Afrocentric nonfiction, he was familiar with the ways that Africa was looted, then scapegoated by the looters as the seat of all poverty. Africans showed up in our homes when we least expected them, always with flies on their faces and a soft-speaking white person asking us to plumb our humanity for cash. For just a dollar a day, we could have a picture of an African on our refrigerator, a benevolent pen pal to teach children gratitude. My father knew there were many more versions of Africa than the ones who didn’t swat at flies on the commercials. He was joking.

I joked back. “Well can you stick my hotdog in the mail?”

Poor kids are our own Africa. Corporate greed and educational apartheid rob them of things that the greediest dead men once deemed human rights. Our spending habits and propensity for private education make us implicit in their suffering; we then scapegoat and use them as things they never agreed to be. We pull them from our pockets like sobriety tokens, rubbing away their individuality with our grateful thumbs. “Some kids don’t have…”

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“Paper Money” by Kevin Dooley, flickr / creative commons

I call BS on the practice of comparison therapy. Practitioners claim that the shortcut to contentment is to compare oneself to someone who has less. But this is the opposite of contentment, a selfish thrill at the concept of “more.” No wonder we are always saying, like my daughter, I want MORE!!! Comparison may not lead to contentment, but it does lead to condescension.

I’ve seen this kind of condescension up close. In a support group for people struggling with depression, I trusted the circle with my story, my longings, my hopes for a better future. When it was the next person’s turn to speak, she began to cry. “I just feel so guilty for being this sad,” she wept into her hands. “I mean, look at her. She’s begging for a job and a place to live and meanwhile, I have a husband, a home, and a job that pays well and I’m still depressed.” Although the facilitating counselor probably said something very smart about depression being caused by chemical imbalance rather than ingratitude, I didn’t hear any of it over the noise in my head. This woman had just reshaped my story into something pitiful without my permission, then used it to stir up her own guilt over having “more.” I knew in that moment that gratitude could never be tied to “more;” to compare ourselves to “those less fortunate” is to insult the people whose lives we are crumpling up and stuffing into some container smaller than our own. Furthermore, we use “fortunate” as if it is a synonym for “privileged” and then wonder why nobody’s down for a level of social justice that would disturb their claim to “more.”

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“Coppers” by Apionid, flickr / creative commons

Gratitude requires an inward gaze, a new way of looking at the wealth you have. My wealth is my daughter, our connection, and the lessons she teaches me every day. One lesson is that she won’t be grateful for the toys she has until she spends more time looking at them instead of children’s shows peppered with advertisements for “more.” “Some kids” have nothing to do with that.

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About the Author

Asha French

Asha French is a poet and essayist. She writes about parenting her favorite daughter, mourning her favorite father, and learning how to love women in ways that heal. She has a spirit guide in the person of a five year old daughter who loves bats. Her work has appeared in Pluck, PoetryMemoirStory, Emory Magazine, Mutha Magazine, Women’s Media Project, and Autostraddle. She is a former columnist for Ebony.com and is currently looking for a home for her collection of essays.



2 Responses to ASHA FRENCH Gets Caught in THE COMPARISON TRAP

  1. You are so right, and at the same time we are only human. We tend to compare. Try not to compare, but also cut yourself some slack if you do.

  2. George says:

    This is so true. The feeling of being compared to others tends to lead to depression – it does not help, very wrong approach.

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