Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Incomparable

The easiest way to make yourself feel bad, short of a hammer, is to compare yourself to others.

I'm not suggesting you not have any heroes. Christians have a lot of heroes, right from when we're kids: there's Our Lord, His Blessed Mother, and all the Saints. The saints are to be admired and, as much as we're able or called, emulated. (Nobody seems to be called to sit on a pole anymore. What must St. Simon Stylites be thinking? "Kids today...") I wish I had known, as a cast-off wearing kid, that Dorothy Day wore nothing but cast-off clothes for most of her adult life. Kids in particular need heroes, models and guides.

What I am suggesting is that you not see how you measure up to other people your age and younger in day to day life. You can drive yourself nuts doing that. And not only that, if you have a problem with self-absorption already, as Single people often do (alas), you lose sight of the person to whom you're comparing yourself. You can't see them; you just see what they have, which you want, and you don't got and why don't you, etc., etc.

As you probably know, I'm 39. I don't repeat this over and over again because our society rewards a woman for being 39. No. I repeat this over and over again because most of you are much younger than I am and worried because you haven't yet been called to marriage or religious life or permanent Single Life, including (but not limited to) the priesthood. Well, I wasn't called until I was 38. And I don't have any kids yet despite being 39. And nevertheless the sun is shining in through the window, and I am enjoying a nice cup of tea, and I am pondering what I shall have for lunch, and life is very good. So I keep telling you that I'm 39 so you will feel better about being 27 or whatever you are.

But if I decided to compare myself to a younger woman, a younger woman with children, one who makes tons and tons of money through her writing, I would go simply bonkers. So I don't. And the one time I did complain that I wanted to publish my first book at 14, not 39, a kind friend said Tolkien published his first book at 63. I mean, Tolkien. 63. Wow! It makes you think.

Recently a young Single friend of mine was wigging out about her situation in life. She was definitely wigging. (I wig enough to know wigging when I see it.) She burst into a furious monologue about another woman she knew. It went something like this: "She's only two years older than me, and she's got a charming husband, and she was wearing three massive diamond rings, and she's got a baby. My life is utterly hopeless, hopeless, hopeless."

Now, I just did not know what to say. I mean, I was a meelyon years older than both these girls, and whereas I do have a charming husband, I cannot call Ringzilla massive, and I most definitely do not have a baby. But I decided that this was one of those times I should keep my mouth shut, and the very next day this young Single friend got a fantastic, fantabulous career boost.

We are often encouraged to compare ourselves favourably to those poorer than we so that we will count our lucky stars. I disagree with this technique too. It seems so freaking patronizing. (I'd sure like to know whose brilliant idea it was to ship crates and crates of condoms to Haiti, crates of condoms that slowed down the distribution of food aid.) When charity tourists come back from their Liberation Theology trips to El Salvador or wherever, they usually say something like, "They're so poor, but they're so happy." Well, then.

I suspect I may have been pitied by a bondslave. There I was in a nail salon in Brighton, Massachusetts, one staffed by Vietnamese girls working under the steely eye of their older Vietnamese bosses. These girls didn't speak much English, and as Brighton's aerobicized and sun-bedded bottle-blondes chatted to each other, the Vietnamese girls crouched at their feet, polishing away and exchanging remarks in Vietnamese. The youngest of these girls used to test her pidgin English on me, and one day, as she dug away at my cuticles, I discovered that what she liked best about America was watching the cars go up and down the street outside the salon. Apparently that was all she had seen of America since her husband had brought her from her tiny village. I hid my horror under a smile.

"Are you married?" asked the possible bondslave.

"No," I said. "Not yet?"

"Ooooooooooh," said the girl. But then she reflected, "Plenty time. How old are you?"

"Thirty-six," I said.

The girl looked up swiftly. And there, in her widened eyes, was definite, sincere, and absolute pity.

So, anyway, that is my message today. Don't compare yourself to others, and don't compare what you have to what other people have. This is not exactly an original thought, and when our Lord had it, he told us to compare ourselves to birds and flowers instead.

Update: Speaking of comparisons, Seraphic Singles' Amazon.com ranking yesterday was 128,958. This morning it is 59,692. I have no idea what this actually means, but it feels good. Thank you for buying my book!

17 comments:

Liesel said...

We can never really what is going on in another's life. On Saturday during a conversation about how we resist the Holy Spirit, I confessed that I sometimes struggled to accept still being single to a married woman in my parish. She confessed that she sometimes struggled to love her husband as she should, and even when she felt the Holy Sprit urging her to reach out to him, she did not. We sat staring at each other wide eyed for a minute. From the outside, we both seem content and blissfully happy! It had never occurred to either of us that the other was struggling in this way. So you never know what the young married woman with heaps of money and beautiful children is actually going through.

Seraphic said...

Very, very true, Liesel.

Deirdre said...

Hi, I just started following this blog, and I just wanted to say that I love it - it's one of those things that has appeared in my life JUST when I need it. Your message today is about something I struggle with a LOT. I sat with a group of friends watching the rugby last weekend, and when I looked around I realised that I was a) the only single person there, and b) the oldest. Double whammy. But you're so right - if I spend my time comparing myself to others, I'm on the road to Bonkersville. But I know I'm not alone in feeling that it's sometimes difficult when you feel called to marriage, and motherhood, and you see it happen to all those around you and not to you. Patience, I hear you say...I know, I know, I know.....

Seraphic said...

Thank you, Deirdre. When you say "single", do you mean you were literally the only unmarried person there, or do you mean you were the only one without a boyfriend?

Because having a boyfriend is NOT the same thing as having a boyfriend. And so many women settle just for having a boyfriend and thinking that is okay. In fact, a woman with no live-in boyfriend could be closer to her wedding day than the woman with a live-in. (I don't know why this thought suddenly struck me. It could be because I spent some years being the oldest in a group, but we girls were generally all Single.)

When I was Single, I had lots of Single friends, so we were all in the same boat. And now that I am married, I STILL have lots of Single friends. And this goes to show that you are not the only Single gal out there. But I know how you feel because I shed many a lonely tear in my time.

Scary story: I know a married woman whose first husband died of a heart attack when he was 26. It was the saddest funeral I was ever at. Oh, and did I mention she was pregnant? And that at the grave site she gave a eulogy in which she said we have to submit to God's will?

Eeee! Me, I was separated at 26 and divorced at 27. But that's another story. Bottom line: a wedding doesn't save you from a muckle of hardship and suffering in this life.

Deirdre said...

Thanks so much for your reply. In answer to your question - I was with 4 married couples and one engaged couple. And I am, at the moment, sans boyfriend. Bad enough, but to be the oldest on top of that kinda got to me. I know, I know....Bonkersville here I come. To be honest, on a day to day basis, it doesn't occupy my thoughts every waking minute...I have a good life, and many, MANY lucky stars to count (that's a tragic story about the young girl losing her young husband), and I appreciate every one of those lucky stars - it's just moments like last weekend, when I look around and realise that these couples have all found what I'm looking for - that my alone-ness hits me in the face and I lose a bit of hope.

Seraphic said...

Well, I'm glad they were all honestly married (or honestly engaged). Sometimes panic-vibes come off of long-term bidie-ins when they're out with really married people, and it makes me feel bad.

Child, you need to watch rugby with more Single friends! Actually, what is with rugby? Violent and scary. Football is the game for me. I learned to love football by watching the 2006 World Cup in a German seminary. All those gorgeous seminarians, and none (obviously) for me. Alas!

One trick I often have used with married friends is to consider if I would honestly like to be married to any of the men. And my answer was always "No". One of my friends married a very clever and handsome man, so I thought I might have a different answer, but--no. Nope. Not for me! Even the nicest had something just too wrong--like lousy Low Christology or a tick.

But, frankly, some times you are just going to suffer. And that SUCKS. All I can console you with is that you aren't always going to suffer and quite often being Single doesn't suck. Oh, and suffering because you're Single is a million times better than suffering because you're married to the wrong guy.

And don't forget, most of the people reading your words in this combox are Single, too, and not only do they understand, a lot of them feel exactly the same way. So you're not REALLY alone.

Deirdre said...

Would I like to be married to any of the men????!!! Lord, no....not one (much as I adore them, they're great friends). Thanks for that!

As for the rugby...I'm Irish, it's one of the few things we do really well!

theobromophile said...

Excellent post, as always. :)

As for comparing ourselves to the poor to get rid of pain: ugh in so many ways! Pain does not disappear for having been compared to more pain. People (especially women, I think) often just need to stomp their feet, scream about how bad it is, how much they hurt, and how tough things are. This is not Paradise, and we shouldn't be told to pretend that it is.

leonine said...

When I was, oh, 13 or so, I wanted terribly to be in my best friend's family, not in my own. Her parents were hip, they had far more money than my family did, they were all beautiful... but there was a dark and tragic side to that story that I had absolutely no idea about until I was at university.

Just this week I had a similar epiphany about a colleague. Really, you never know what's going on with people. So this is a timely post, Seraphic, because I was struck again this week by how much appearances can be deceiving.

I'm so aware that I wouldn't want to be married to the husbands of my friends that, at the moment, this isn't nearly as hard for me on the relational level as it is on the professional one. But that's pretty situational and probably related to the fact that my professional life is pretty all-consuming at the moment.

So you're right. I think the best thing to do is put one foot in front of the other and continue along one's own path without comparison, hard as it is.

KimP said...

Thanks for this. I will be . . . 46 in a few months and have never been married. This weekend at a retreat for women I confided to one of my fellow retreatants that I was frustrated by the fact that God has not presented me with a husband in all of my 45 years, and if He doesn't want me married then what does he want me to do???!!!!! She then told me that her youngest was going off to college next year, and she would love to finally get a job outside the home that would put her unused fine arts degree to good use, and she was frustrated because she wasn't sure what God wanted her to do!!!! So we were at the same place, really. Except that I envied her life, and she envied mine. : )

bolyongok said...

Auntie Seraphic! I saw your book as high as 21k on the list! :D
Thank you for this article! It is so, and so tempting sometimes to compare yourself to others who are doing better or worse than you are and it's so futile! It's way too easy to be a bitter Single. Perspective is so important!

Kate P said...

It's true but really difficult to keep "End the compare-athon!" as my motto. I'm trying.

I don't follow rugby but I always laugh when I see a t-shirt or bumper sticker that says, "Give blood--play rugby."

Anonymous said...

I'm not certain of the wisdom of looking to other women and thinking "I wouldn't want her husband", or "she may have troubles I don't know about" as a solution to the painful problem of Singleton envy. Such thinking puts you in the undignified and un-Christian position of, er, finding satisfaction, of a sort, in someone else's troubles. Not good, and not good for us, however natural it may be.

When I was younger and suffering from either jealousy or envy of another woman, I used to try (sometimes; not always, alas) to compel myself to go out of my way to be nice to her, without fawning of course. It was surprisingly helpful at easing the pangs.

What I would recommend for those whose feelings of distress or envy have become too overwhelming is to try anti-depressants. I know that this has become something of a panacea for modern ills, and would not suit everyone. Where drug therapy can be helpful, though, even for those who do not feel depressed, is that it can shut off the voices of self-loathing (what some therapists call "the Committee") in one's head that are forever shouting that one is lazy or no-good or unattractive. Once the Committee has been silenced, it is easier to attend to the promptings of humour, proportion, and even conscience. We are less inclined to envy others when we are not busy hating ourselves.

Clio

Seraphic said...

Clio, I completely disagree.

First, anything that takes a sad Single out of him- or herself long enough to realize that other people have problems is a good thing. It isn't schadenfreude--it's feeling a sense of human kinship and sympathy. Everyone has troubles; everyone is deserving of a certain about of sympathy. No-one is to be envied; we all have our crosses to bear, and the one we have is often the one we're meant to carry.

Second, when you admit to yourself that you wouldn't wish to be married to your friends' husbands, you are amused enough at the very idea to laugh (even if you sincerely like the fellows), which is also good. It also reminds you that marriage is not a fairy tale but a solid, concrete, legal, social and sometimes religious agreement with one specific imperfect man or woman.

Third, anti-depressants, though helpful for those who are truly ill (e.g. chronically depressed), are no substitute for character and are not a permanent solution to pain. Pastoral counselling, spiritual direction and prayer may have just the same effect against "the Committee" in the head. At any rate, one's GP should be consulted.

Mental health takes discipline, just as physical health does. And such discipline include blocking out the "You're no good" voices.

I tell writing students about "the writing demon". The writing demon is the voice in a person's head telling them that what they have written is stupid. The challenge, I said, is to ignore the writing demon long enough to finish an entire draft.

Anonymous said...

Mental health takes discipline, just as physical health does. And such discipline include blocking out the "You're no good" voices.

Yes indeed, Seraphic. But for those who find themselves cursed with poor mental health through no fault of their own - and there are some people in this situation - I am not certain that this approach is the one to follow. It is a good one for those in a state of good health mentally and physically, of course. But for those who are not, who find that the internal voices of self-reproach have become, as I said, overwhelming, medical intervention can be helpful and indeed necessary.

Depression does not always manifest itself as a conscious sense of despair. It can sometimes appear as a sense of worthlessness, in which the sufferer compares herself to others and finds herself lacking in every way. Indeed, I understand that for women this is one of the more common symptoms of depression.

I know that modern medicine is perhaps guilty of pathologizing ordinary feelings of self-reproach or frustration. On the other hand, there is something about modern life that is very isolating, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Westerners, with every comfort and physical safety to uphold us, seem to be more likely to suffer from depression than poorer peoples.

Clio

Seraphic said...

Clio, that's an interesting point about Westerners and depression. I wonder what it is?

Seraphic said...

Not the point, of course! I wonder what is the thing about modern life in the West that drives so many people to depression and the pills?

Meanwhile, I have no problem with the pills, for those who really need them, and if they are prescribed by a competent doctor. We take drugs for nasty infections; taking drugs for chronic mood disorders is just as reasonable.