Against Better or Worse

By: | Topic: Philosophy | 3 Comments »

It seems there’s a little voice in our heads who constantly says “is that GOOD or BAD? which is BETTER?” and it is a stupid pointless little voice most of the time.

As a parent I’m conscious of trying to teach how to live from scratch. In the artificially competitive worlds of school grades, the olympics or rare roles like prima ballerina in the Russian ballet, zero sum competition is a fact. However, in a long, fulfilling life, this fact is mostly irrelevant, even for straight-A olympian ballerinas. Life is not so one-dimensional.

A tendency towards an evaluative context needlessly promotes anxiety – even when parents attempt to be supportive with “wow you’re really good at drawing”. Compare “wow you must really enjoy drawing” or “wow you really worked hard on that”. The child learns what is important this way.

In life, lack of contentment coupled with an overly evaluative, zero sum mindset leads to yet more emptiness because one is seeking either dominion or relative merit, merit defined by the performance of others! Remember Steven Bradbury, the Aussie speed skater who won gold because of a spectacular spill that took out all the faster skaters at the last turn? Olympic gold is not for personal bests nor world records.

A young child I know returned from school having received an award for doing his best. “Wow! that’s the best award!” I said. He scowled, “no it’s not!”. How can it be better to do somebody else’s best?

There is a story in our culture about how we humans are “conscious” and, together with “the language instinct”, it is often repeated that this feature meaningfully distinguishes us from the animals and even defines humanity. I’m increasingly skeptical of this ill-defined claim to “higher” consciousness while it stokes the fire of anxious, extrinsic self-evaluation as we side-eye our fellow humans in yet another arbitrary achievement race. It’s ironic.

“Consciousness” is a part of our childish narrative that seeks to fill our insatiable desire for self-importance and yet its kissing cousin, mindfulness, turns that on its head: we are here and when we sit with ourselves, that self-company speaks louder than any striving appeal to all the other human animals we gather around us and to whom we mindlessly and habitually delegate our authority.

3 Comments on “Against Better or Worse”

  1. 1 L said at 4:51 pm on June 3rd, 2021:

    Yes, compare leads to despair, and yet it’s so hard to quiet the monkey mind! Especially when one sits alone in silence. I wish there were a magic potion but the fight against to comparison and ego is more like conditioning and the gym, an everyday, forever practice. I just have a hard time accepting it and always getting back on the wagon 🙂

  2. 2 Christo said at 12:44 am on June 16th, 2021:

    I think it’s possible to compare without evaluating. For example, compare a banana to a strawberry. There are differences and we can enjoy the distinction, we can enjoy the variety and the two may need to coexist for us to benefit from the fruit salad of life.

    Maybe it’s also possible to be unstuck from an evaluative context via comparison, too. On one hand, evaluation without comparison leads to a real emotional knot. It may feel as though something is “not good enough” – such as ourselves – but without a sense of what is enough – without a model of our expectations against which we might fail or succeed to live up to. In some of these cases, if we were to compare, we might find that we shape up pretty well. We might plumb the depths of our fuzzy expectations and find they are undefined and therefore unsatisfiable.

    At least with comparison we can soberly reconsider if the comparison is useful or appropriate. We could find through this comparison a path to recognising that we can’t realistically measure up to an olympic athlete and through this unfair comparison recognise our need to pick a new standard to live up to.

    But the one dimensional evaluation is a nasty habit. We rarely gain much appreciation or utility from boiling things down into a single dimension. Appreciating things for what they are is an inherently multifaceted opportunity in life. Why insist on seeing in black and white?

  3. 3 Dan Mackinlay said at 4:14 pm on July 17th, 2021:

    Related; ML Koans

    And, I suppose, nearly as good, How an algorithm feels from the inside

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