No Comparison

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My husband and I are on a working vacation this week, spending a good chunk of it in our former neighborhood in Boise, Idaho where we still own a house. The mission was to get it all in shape between renters and interview and select new tenants. Happy to say, mission accomplished. But here’s the thing: we love that house. It’s kind of the perfect size, with enough architectural niceties to keep it interesting but not so big that it’s pretentious or that we can’t find each other in it. In the yard, the trees and landscaping my husband worked so hard to put in have now matured to their full glory, a river birch and maple shading the sunny side of the house, a japanese maple bowing gracefully over the rock water feature where birds love to drop in for a quick dip. Idaho Shakespeare Festival is a ten minute walk away. And we love the neighborhood, a sweet, lovely multi-generational oasis where kids roam freely, ride bikes and play outside until dark, where neighbors drop by on warm evenings for an impromptu glass of wine, where there’s a nearby bike trail that can take us 30 miles along the Boise River Greenbelt and through a network of gracious parks.

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But, it’s in Idaho.  Idaho is a long stretch from California, where we decided we really needed to be in this chapter of our lives. And St. Helena, where we live now, is nestled in one of the most beautiful regions in the world. Our home there is smaller and we don’t have kids playing in our decidedly graying development, but we can walk our dog through the vineyards every day and be in the heart of our exquisite wine country village inside of 20 minutes. Where there is world-class coffee, food, and of course wine on pretty much every corner. We aren’t nearly as attached to our house there, and although the neighborhood is very nice we’re not as in love with it as we were with our old one. What we are in love with is the surrounding region, the NorCal vibe and culture, the proximity of San Francisco and Berkeley and indeed the rest of our home state.

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(and no, that’s not my house; it’s the Culinary Institute of America)

So on trips like these, I spend a lot of internal energy comparing the two locations and thinking about in which one we’re truly better off. There are budget considerations I won’t bore you with, and professional ones as well, but what gets my gears spinning is a kind of “yes, but this has that while that has this” thought spiral that can go on pretty much endlessly, or until something distracts me.

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What I’ve finally figured out is this: my problem lies in comparing the two, as though one is objectively Better Than the other. As though there is some quantifiably correct value judgment that will obtain despite changes in circumstances, perspective, season, or mood. The truth is they both have their charms and their downsides (icy winter sidewalks in Boise, weekend tourist-fueled congestion in St. Helena, for example).

Which got me thinking about the whole practice of comparison. Mostly, unless you’re shopping for avocados or a new car, I’ve decided that, generally speaking, it’s a mistake. We have to evaluate things in life, practice discernment, make decisions — of course we do. But so much of the comparing we engage in doesn’t help us at all. It only makes us unsatisfied. Even unhappy.

Comparison has a way of getting out of hand, of becoming pernicious. It’s a treacherous slope that leads from comparing Twitter followings and golf scores to our looks, our children, our spouses, our lives. Worst of all is when we compare ourselves, not only to other people (which we can never do to any degree that is accurate or just, due to our own distorted lenses and our lack of information about what is really going on in anybody else’s mind or heart or experience), but to some idealized and unexamined version of ourselves that hangs around in our brains, just waiting to make us feel either inflated or hopeless.

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That kind of comparison — which is, let’s be honest, the most common kind we indulge in, unless we work for Consumer Reports — is a waste of time, just another one of the ego’s beguiling and dispiriting tricks. I herewith resolve, next time I catch myself at it, to lay off.

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I’ll let you know how I’m doing with this program in a couple of months. You know, compared to now.

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