We live in an interesting time. Social justice warriors have taken over our media channels. Tweets get scrutinized, Facebook posts are seen as gospel, and sound bites are taken out of context.
We’ve all gone soft, to some extent. Now, I’m not saying that emotional vulnerability is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think being honest and congruent with yourself is mandatory.
But we’ve taken things a step too far. Today, equality and inclusion are at the extreme. Of course we want a more inclusive and equal society. Everyone deserves a chance to make something of themselves. But when comparative equality reigns supreme, we’ve all gone a little off our rocker.
Just ask the Soviet Union.
This is Why You’ll Always Compare Yourself to Others
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. How do you know if you’re successful? Seriously, try to answer the question.
For example, let’s suppose that your definition of “success” is a six figure salary. The only way you know this number signifies success is because of the people who aren’t making six figures.
Think about it. If everyone made $100k per year, $100k would cease to be a barometer of success. Instead, the measure would increase to $200k or even $300k. The only reason you believe that a six figure salary equals success is because there are people who make comparatively less.
This is because we define ourselves by our similarities and differences to others. Just like how you can’t have black without knowing white, you can’t have wealth without knowing poverty. If everyone was ubiquitously wealthy, there would be no understanding of wealth.
As Alan Watts says, “I define myself in terms of you; I know myself only in terms of what is ‘other.’ no matter whether I see the ‘other’ as below me or above me in any ladder of values. If above, I enjoy the kick of self-pity; if below, I enjoy the kick of pride. I being I goeswith you being you.”
How do you know that $10 million is a lot of money? Because there are more people who’ve never made $10 million than those who’ve earned that amount. If the average lifetime earnings of a person is $10 million, the number would cease to be extraordinary. It would be decidedly normal and unassuming.
But how would it become normal? Because comparatively more people would have $10 million. Conversely, if you were to make $10 million per year while the average person made $50k, you’d know that you’re comparatively more successful. But, regardless of the situation, you’re comparing yourself to others.
It’s just like the cliche of white and black. If there was no color white, there would be no understanding of the color black. We humans can only define a “thing” as what it is or isn’t when compared to other “things.”
How do you describe a movie, TV show, or book? “Man,” you’ll say, “it’s just like Star Wars except it’s based in the past.” You compare and contrast with other “known” things. Without crappy space movies, how would you know that Star Wars was any good (the original three, of course)?
How do we know if a light bulb is bright? Well, we could stare at it and see if it hurt our eyes. But hurting our eyes isn’t a prerequisite for “bright.” If all light bulbs were bright enough to hurt our eyes, then hurting our eyes would be a normality. Instead, we determine the brightness of a bulb by comparing it to the brightness of other bulbs, or even the sun.
I digress. This ideology even works with altruistic goals. Because even if you’re working with a nonprofit, for example, you still define yourself against organizations or people who aren’t doing “enough.”
As Alan Watts continues to say, “The difficulty is that the moment you’re seriously involved [with an organization], you find yourself boxed in some special in-group which defines itself, often with the most elegant subtlety, by the exclusion of an out-group.”
You might feel passionate working for your nonprofit, but your positive feeling is the direct comparison to another group. “Other people aren’t helping as much as I am,” for example. Or even, “I feel good about helping these people because they have so little while others have so much.” See, comparison.
Remember, you only know who you are by who other people aren’t.
What to Do with Your Ego
What all of this means is that you are your ego. Your “ego” is the part of your mind and body that looks at someone else and rationalizes your current life-state. Worrying what others think about you is a classic example of the ego at work.
The ego is the driving force behind our never-ending cycle of comparing and contrasting. However, if you read any of the self-development literature nowadays, the ego is the exact thing you need to do away with to achieve happiness.
Which creates a paradox, because we have to compare ourselves to others to gain an understanding of self, and at the same time, we need to let go of our ego to be happy, which does all the comparing in the first place.
Your favorite color might be black and your least favorite color white, but without the hated color white, you’d never be able to perceive the beauty of black. The same principle applies here.
We could even take it further and discuss sound waves. A wave has a crest and a trough, an “up” and a “down.” When we hear sounds, what we’re hearing is actually the silence between noises – or the trough of the sound wave. Without a lack of sound, we’d never be able to hear any distinguishable sounds in the first place.
So, paradoxically, we need to know what other’s aren’t in order to know who we are, and we need to understand our ego to observe its absence.
What gives? How can we get rid of our ego and at the same time have a firm sense of self? Well, we need to become the happy jester in the court of our lives; we have to simultaneously accept and reject our ego.
As Alan Watts asks poignantly, “Does it really take any considerable time or effort just to understand that you depend on enemies and outsiders to define yourself, and that without some opposition you would be lost? To see this is to acquire, almost instantly, the virtue of humor, and humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive.”
“Humor,” Watts goes on to say, “is the twinkle in the eye of the just judge, who knows that he is also the felon on the dock.”
Because we’re a walking contradiction. We have to remove our self-centered ego, and at the same time, we’re required to use our ego to define ourselves against the definition of others.
Life is funny, isn’t it?
The bottom line is that life is a paradox. It’s beyond comprehension. However, as rational animals, we try our best to comprehend it and put it in a defined “box” that makes sense.
The key, though, is to understand that it is beyond comprehension, that it is a paradox.
So, the next time you feel your ego rearing its ugly head, the next time you look at a girl or guy and think to yourself “I wish I looked like that,” go ahead and have a good laugh.
Because the ego is necessary for personal identity, yet it’s directly opposed to your happiness (if you believe the current trend in philosophy and self-development).
Don’t try to fight your ego. Rather, thank it for its comparative insight. Thank the black of night for contrasting with the beauty of a sunny day.
And then, the next time you feel inadequate – or even superior – in the company of someone else, you’ll know that it’s your ego and not you. But if your ego is you, well, then…