Comparison, the Thief of Joy

May 12, 2014 1 Comment

Theodore Roosevelt is credited with the statement,  “Comparison is the thief of joy”.

Heron, Lark, Linnet, Penguin Similar boats, different destinations,  the joy is in the journey

Heron, Lark, Linnet, Penguin
Similar boats, different destinations,
the joy is in the journey

I’ll bet the concept has been around since the very first cave dweller looked at another’s shelter and thought, “not fair’.   Today, still, there is much conversation and energy associated with comparison and envy.

Make no mistake, I’m not talking about grave injustices of discrimination, poverty, health support, or education.  There have always been, and always will be, social issues which we, as thoughtful, righteous people, should seek to resolve.

I’m thinking about the more mundane, day-to-day experiences of those of us who have much.  We live comfortably; and, yet, we mutter somewhere deep in our psyches “not fair”–that another is thinner, seems to have more money,  appears happier …smarter ….prettier …stronger …faster …taller …shorter …married …single…etc, etc, etc.

In Tai Chi, as in life, there are opportunities for comparison.  In fact, some say there is only one joke in all of Tai Chi.  It is this:  

How many Tai Chi practitioners does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Thirty-one … one to change the bulb and thirty to say “Well that’s not how we do it in our school!”

With as many as four thousand schools and types of Tai Chi and Qigong practiced by millions upon millions of people, it is likely that the student will hear one type of comparison, or another, in class.  Most teachers are gracious and open to the student preferring one form or type of Tai Chi over another.  While there are schools of Tai Chi that profess they are the one-true form, the greater risk of unproductive comparison for a student is comparing him/herself to another student.

We are as unique in our practices as we are in our fingerprints.  It is not unusual to come to practice and feel envious or competitive when we see a fellow student perform a sequence or form flawlessly when we are struggling.  Comparison can steal the joy we are entitled to simply because we came to class when we had a list of things to do.  Or when, for the first time, we stand on one leg without wobbling while executing Rooster Stands on One Leg.

Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Outliers that to become an expert requires 10,000 hours. Or, more simply, to be an expert or gain mastery requires enormous time and effort.   I think it is interesting that Tai Chi has been around thousands of years and has had a similar saying for most of that time.   ” The first 10,000 don’t count.”   This philosophy serves me well, when I push myself to perform a move as well as a fellow student or teacher.   Taking my mind off my personal practice and the peace it gives me surely does disrupt the joy of movement.

Tai Chi is truly a journey, not a destination.  We are each like the little boats on Loch Laomain in Scotland.  Heron, Lark, Linnet, Penguin are similar boats that have different destinations most days, their joy is in the journey….as is ours.


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  1. mary ann lemar says:

    I enjoyed this. I usually feel I’m not doing tai chi as good as every one else but I enjoy it any way!

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