Clouds of our own

I can find no direct evidence that Theodore Roosevelt  ever said that comparison is the thief of joy, but there is in the modern idiom a truthiness to it.  If he did say, or more likely write (he penned around 50 books and over 150,000 letters) that, I like to think he was speaking both about class and tax policy and about intrapersonal and social dynamics.  He was a man far ahead of his time (and indeed, our own) when it came to understanding how governments could reify structural inequalities.  He was also acutely, unusually sensitive, while being a conventional man of his time who generally declined to exposit his more personal emotions.  For all his bluster and exterior velocity he was profoundly aware of how envy could poison, from both within and without.

Cy Whitling recently wrote a nice piece over at Newschoolers, about a dynamic all but essential to my cohort of early Millenials; the decline and fall of the internet forum.  By his account “Instagram wants to create Internet “friendships” that are built on a toxic foundation of comparison. Sure, it’s possible to use the app in a better way, to make those real connections, but you’re fighting the algorithm to do so.”  This is something which is hard to argue, and I count myself lucky to have been born into just the right window, of people who went through high school without cell phones or email, but had the blossuming of online subgroups to be a guide through their 20s, and enough maturity and accumulated personhood by the time the oughts really got rolling to have turning off social as a realistic choice.  Opting out of institutionalized envy is a shitty choice when doing so is tired to social isolation; just ask my 14 year old clients about Snapchat and Tiktok.

The importance of curating one’s social landscape and thus, selecting the grounds for daily comparison, is well established in the literature.  It is also well established in history, with the number spinners and outright fakers in the history of (for instance) polar “exploration” going from deep within the 18th century right up to the present day.  Mr. Teasdale’s essay is worth reading in full, parable of both internal and external deception that it is, as well as a devastating (true) critique precisely because it is thorough and fair and almost pulls no dramatic punches in the process of showing us how to writer such a thing.  One has to pity Mr. O’Brady; for if the mere existence of a project that took so much effort, time, and money was only due to suppurating, inherently superannuated, suffocating comparison to those who had gone before, surely no air can be left for even the smallest joy.

A example, in short of how not to live ones life.  You don’t even have to tell us about it.








10 responses to “Clouds of our own”

  1. As someone who is unemployed at the moment, the shtick of ‘build your own brand’ is very very much what is proposed to me. Given the fact that at the end of the day ‘my own brand’ only really matters in a broader context, it would without any doubt need a helpful dose of comparison (ideally the kind of comparison that would make me look good) to make any sense to start with. As long as [whatever] can be a way to curate one’s public image in a world of increasing competition for decreasing resources, there you go. As long as we are reminded that there is, in fact, more to be had, it is difficult to not compare. But, is this wanting more a different kind of the wanting more that gave us the world we inhabit today? because some of the stuff we have is clear bullshit, but some of the stuff we achieved is clearly not.

    I do agree I can count my blessings I did not have this pressure when I was growing up. I am on IG to keep an eye on my nephew and niece in Singapore. I cannot really say how bad things are for them, but for my niece they are worse — she is 11 (or 12? cannot quite remember), and she is clearly much more under pressure to conform and compete. I am sorry for them, I wish I could do more, but I do not compare. Even in person, when I can enable or facilitate real experiences for them, stuff they seemed keen on just a couple of years ago, still cannot compare to getting seen on whatever stuff they get seen. At the same time, we did compare in the real world when I did not have all the gadgets, so at times I wonder whether they just do what I did, in a shape that makes me blind to my own self.

  2. I read the Nat Geo piece a week ago on Colin and immediately felt sorry for him. What he did was an accomplishment, however the purple pros depiction of his journey tainted it. Classic example of overcompensation and loss of integrity.

  3. My adventures are small and not worth hearing about unless you know me as a person. I’m very possessive of my experiences and emotions and I won’t misrepresent internal knowing with a dozen SEO-approved hashtags. I find it difficult to look at trip reports at all; yours and a few others are the only ones I prioritize; there are people I like a lot irl whose outdoor media I avoid because it is saturated with personal branding. I don’t pity O’Brady; he could spend talent and ambition on experience and mastery and he chooses to spend it on eyeballs. I’m surprised you do; you’ve advocated for making access more difficult and the influence of this guy’s media environment on his public behavior doesn’t excuse his logistics and execution shortcuts, nor his misrepresentations of them.

    I just got an Instagram last week. I needed an account to sign up for something else. I decided to put up a few photos. They try to prevent you from uploading from a computer, i.e. photos taken by dedicated cameras not wanted. I don’t use my phone for pictures so I had to find a way around that. “Fighting the algorithm,” indeed.

    1. I’m a psychotherapist; empathy is inexorable.

      1. I know. I’m sorry if I came off as coming at you.

  4. Interesting thoughts Dave.

    Before reading this I had a discussion with a very accomplished outdoorsman/outdoor woman(who will remain anonymous). This friend mentioned that a lot of outdoor activity was driven by comparison and looking good for Instagram. I responded saying I couldn’t understand that. I stated that I could post some pictures and look cool but I didn’t have nearly the skills or accomplishments of a couple other individuals in the outdoor community so why embarrassed myself by trying to look better then I was? My friend then responded that at least one of the mentioned individuals would probably feel a bit insecure next to me because of unrelated things I’d done that they hadn’t.

    My friend was probably correct but I found the whole thing depressing. What ever happened to being content? What ever happened to the idea of recognizing different kinds of abilities?

    This all reminded me of Andrew Skurka’s last big expedition. He said he wanted to have an adventure. He didn’t try to pretend he was raising awareness of climate change or whatever, he just wanted to do a challenging trip. I like that. I also liked that he was honest about the trip. He described skiing on snow machine trails between villages. He didn’t say he was “off the map” or something silly like that. In contrast I get the impression this O’Brien fellow was planning a trip around getting the most headlines for the least amount of effort. What a sad way to live.

    1. My opinion as a mental health professional is that being content is increasingly hard. Comparison has always been a potential problem but the online side of life makes it vastly easier (and most significantly, faster) to seek out other models. Combine that with how accessible online self-representation makes exaggerations and white lies so tempting and you have a potentially toxic environment.

      You and I are also just old enough that ignoring all that is a lot easier than for younger folks.

      1. Yeah I don’t know what the answer is.

        I do think the online world makes it much worse. For comparison only a few of my real world friends pursue outdoor activities as much as I do. I could read Outside or some other magazine but that’s only once a month. In contrast I could go online and suddenly wish I had better skis, a different packraft, a lighter rifle etc.
        In another interesting situation a friend rather wistfully said he wished he had time for the kind of adventures I had. On the other hand he’s happily married with a cool kid, something I might’ve had sooner if I didn’t spend all my free time in the woods. Who’s really better off? I guess part of that answer is accepting there just isn’t enough time in the day to run down every possible dream. But maybe that knowledge comes with age.

        1. I still struggle, profoundly at times, with accepting the limits on my time. And I’ve had enough practice it seems I really ought to be better at it.

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