The Thief of Joy

If you didn’t already know the great Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote (and, perhaps you don’t), how would you begin this sentence?

“_________ : The Thief of Joy.”

If you could pop any word in there, which would you choose?

I personally quite like Comparison: The Thief of Joy. It just…is. Am I right? It just holds, with all its weight, the perfect place in that sentence. The perfectly villainous role of that which steals, siphons, and thieves one’s joy.

Truly, though, I find myself repeating this quote in mantra-like form to myself on a regular basis. As of late, it’s been not only a daily occurrence, but more likely a thrice-daily occurrence. Why, you ask? I can’t really answer that. But I suppose it’s because I’m feeling very #thisis27 (yes, I just used a hashtag in an informal essay); I’m finding myself observing my life, surroundings, thoughts, decisions, career, even my physical form in a different light than ever before. In a mid-to-late-twenties light. It’s glaringly bright…

I’m Queen of comparison. Myself to others, this Thursday to last Thursday, today to yesterday, right now to 45 minutes ago…and I’ll tell you what: it’s EXHAUSTING. Not only that, it’s absolutely WASTEFUL.

I mean, really. How much more wasteful could one be with one’s thoughts? Well, actually, I suppose I would place regret and jealousy slightly higher on the scale of wasteful thinking…but comparison comes in a close third. Seriously, what are we trying to accomplish when we compare? We may be comparing ourselves to who we once were, 10 years ago, even earlier in the week, who we are to who we thought we’d be (by now). Sometimes we’re comparing ourselves to others – renowned masters of our art, airbrushed figures on glossy magazine covers, people whose lives and stories we could never possibly know, careers and salaries and structures of perceived success so completely inanimate and irrelevant to us that it’s shatteringly sad how potent an effect it can have on our (very real, very independently our own) world…

Whether we’re comparing our current selves to our old selves, our(anytime)sevles to others, or our lives and the sacred snippets held within them to anything else out in the world: is no more realistic, no more justified, and no less harmful.

If you want to talk about a thief in the night…talk about comparison. And yes, there are countless other bands of thieves stalking our psyche, pilfering the essence of our joy from right under our noses…but comparison is a particularly foul, repugnant criminal. Mostly because we are fooled into letting this offender into our lives. It wouldn’t even be in our thoughts, meddling with our worlds, if we didn’t allow it in. Comparison has gained access to our precious existence one way: through us.

I’m reminded now of another famous quote, by the great Mahatma Gandhi,

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

Wise words. But, in reality, it’s our own dirty feet doing the walking. Others cannot gain entry to our internal monologue. We let them in.

We cannot have control over anything but our own thoughts, our own reaction to the world around us. Even our most subtle, subconscious thinking can be edited, revised, trained into submission. Gentle, loving submission, that is. The kind of submission that trains the mind to say, yes I may have these harmful thoughts from time to time, thoughts in which I compare myself or my life to something or someone else, knowing full well it does me no good – that it only brings about misery and frustration – and I will vow to notice these moments and silence them with kindness. They may sneak up on me, but I will commit to redirecting them towards a more profoundly beneficial space. Instead of falling, I will rise.

And we will repeat that, or whatever our own unique soliloquy sounds like, to ourselves again, and again, and again, (and then some more), until it because so natural we could do it in our sleep. Then, perhaps, the harshness of comparison will not even poison the still, and sometimes thrashing, waters of our dreams.

As with most anything, comparison has two sides. The light and the dark. And they are all one. Part of one big animal. One beautiful and fierce and loving and vicious animal. Comparison can make us feel good, feel better, more accomplished, grown. But it is a double-edged sword, and when we become familiar and comfortable letting in the golden-lit practice of comparison (the one that sheds warm light on our current state and leaves us coming out on top), we also allow its shadow to come with it. Inevitably. They are attached. Sewn together at the seams. They are one. And, before we know it, we fall screamingly and silently victim to the dark side of comparison, too.

There is no separation.

So the only way to proceed, with as little pain as possible, is to come up with a mantra, a soliloquy, a sweet story of reality that can help ease the burden that can be this human mentality. To wipe our shoes clean before entering our own thoughts. To sweep up, dutifully, after the sacred ground has been soiled. Because it will be. We make mistakes. We act (and think) impulsively. We make messes. We get ambushed by foul thoughts and dirty comparison and fall down rabbit holes of despair and destruction and self-loathing. But our grace is in our rising. In our ability to climb back out. To mop away the footprints. To polish the floors. To recognize that the clean wouldn’t be clean without the dirty, and “now” wouldn’t be “now” without “then.”

I think the true beauty is in accepting that we cannot compare our “now” to our “then” because they are all part of one path. One trail. One story. “Now” simply wouldn’t be without “then.” They are not disjointed, they are not separate entities, and one cannot be without the other. To criticize one aspect is to condemn the whole journey.

As for comparison to others, well my friends, we are all in this boat together. Although sometimes it seems more like an arc, wedged between the elephant and the lion. Towering size and intimidating, perceived savagery on either side. There is no room to breathe.

We may be on this arc, but it’s our choice to jump off and swim. There may be sharks in that water, naturally, and who knows what else. But at least we’ll have removed the option to engage in such demeaning behavior. At least we’ll have made the decision to jump. To swim. We’ll have decided to not be wasteful with our precious thoughts, our precious energy.

Because, surely, to spend our energy swimming – for dear life – with intention and purpose, is a much better use of this great blessing we have been given. Surely it is much greater a task to care for this gift of intellect, keeping it groomed and well-maintained, than it is to be ruled and trampled by it. Using the very ability that allows us to so deeply compare and analyze, with discernment, choosing instead to see this potential avenue and kindly refuse to take it.

Surely, the holy hand that dealt us this intellectual and spiritual capacity would not want it squandered or stolen. So may we handle our fragile humanity with grace; may we remain aware and present, in thought, word, and deed; may we never mistake our train of thought for one on which we are a passenger, rather than the engineer.

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