I am not you and you are not me. I have had to learn this lesson over and over again. I keep having to remind myself that there will always be someone stronger than me. Someone faster than me. Someone better than me. I keep having to remind myself that it’s okay to go my own speed. That it’s okay to not be okay. That what works for you won’t necessarily work for me. Because I am not you and you are not me.
It’s easy to forget that life is not, in fact, “a competition,” as I have said as an almost-joke a few more times than I’d care to admit, and it has taken me a long time to realize just how toxic this thinking is. I’ve noticed it everywhere: professional life, personal life, academic life. I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m nearing my mid-20s or if it’s the explosion of social media where everything is at our fingertips, but it seems that everyone with a platform believes themselves to be equipped with the right answer and solution to all of life’s challenges.
There seems to be a myth that success can be achieved with the perfect formula. As if all that we have to do is be marathon running, vegan entrepreneurs who are simultaneously concerned with the pursuit of profit and with social justice in order to win the game of life. As if an arbitrary number of hours of sleep, glasses of water, and hugs a day will mean we’re doing things “right.” There seems to be a “right” way to be a student, to be a professional, to be a partner, to be a parent, to be a friend, to be a human being. Millions of articles, movies, and publications are dedicated to telling us the “right” way to do things. It’s not just media, it’s people.
A few months ago a group of my friends and I were sitting and catching up when one of them was struck with a look of fervent excitement and they triumphantly told us “I ran two kilometers this week!” It was a moment of pure joy, we all expressed our congratulations, and high fives were exchanged, but the moment was fleeting. When they scanned the faces of our friends, and came to mine, the excitement vanished as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by what I can only describe as an uncomfortable combination of embarrassment and shame. “I mean, I know it’s not big deal. It’s stupid. I know, you run marathons and stuff.” It was completely devastating and nothing I or anyone else could say in that moment could draw back that self-congratulatory pride and beaming excitement that had been there only moments before.
I only started running in 2011. The joy and the freedom that I feel on the river valley trails is my gift to myself. It is my time to heal, to meditate, to take a step back from my responsibilities and remember that this world is too big to worry about the small things. I run for the same reason that some people read, or meditate, or play an instrument. I’ve run some races, sometimes placing, sometimes a few breaths away from throwing in the towel and walking myself to the finish line, but it’s never the races that I remember most. It’s the times I’ve gotten lost on trails in Edmonton, the times I’ve sprinted through downtown just because I could. Running is my bliss, but for the last five months I’ve suffered several small injuries that have kept me from even looking at my sneakers and as a result, keeping me from one of the things that makes me feel best.
In that moment with my friend, I felt so heart broken. I have never imagined that my own bliss would stand in the way of someone else’s happiness. If our success is only valuable when measured next to someone else’s how will we ever be satisfied, where do we draw the line?
In the past five months, I have struggled with my own well-being. I sometimes felt like my health was a competition I had lost on hard days, instead of an ocean where sometimes the tide comes in, sometimes it goes out, and sometimes I have no control over it and that’s okay. I have heard advice from many on how to “feel better.” Many from a place of genuine helpfulness and kindness, and they all seem to know the way to do it. When the people in my life have picked up even a hint of my not doing well, they have almost all immediately jumped to tell me I “do too much” and I’m frequently accused of feeding into the “culture of busy.”
The thing is, my success will not be your success, because I am not you and you are not me. When we all maintain the same arbitrary illusion of what “success” is supposed to be, or what being a successful parent, student, friend, and human being looks like, we risk sabotaging the possibility of achieving our own success, of recognizing and learning what success means to us. How you measure happiness, how you measure well-being, may be completely different from how I do. So maybe being a vegan, or being an entrepreneur, or being a dancer, or being a social justice advocate is what works for you, or maybe doing one thing at a time, dedicating yourself to a field of study or religion, or watching Dr. Who marathons is what works for you. Whatever works. But me, I need structure and predictability. I need to run and be active and cook, things which are optional for some but necessary for my own well-being. I know if I get up at the same time every day, and go to bed at the same time, it does not matter how crazy the middle of my day is, I am in control of my ship. I thrive when I am busy because I feel like I’m useful, like I have a purpose. I need goals and something to look forward to.
Maybe I will spend my entire life figuring out what works for me, but for the time being, I am well. Instead of being so concerned with what I have or do not have, what I do or do not do, who I am or am not, I am trying to spend more time focusing on how happy I am, how healthy my body and mind are, and how kind I am to others. I don’t have to be the best at anything, and I’m okay with that.
We’re all trying to figure things out. We all walk a hard road. If I am constantly comparing myself to others, and measuring my success and failure by someone else’s standards, I will never be good enough. We are ourselves, for better or for worse, and even on my absolute worst day, I am me. The battle we face with ourselves, our own demons, our own challenges are hard enough, why should we make that infinitely more impossible competing against others? Instead of asking other people what they’re doing, and what they’re working on, I want to ask them are you happy? Are you healthy? Are you treating people well? I think I’ll be okay in life so long as I can answer those three questions with “yes.” When I stop looking at my individual journey as a competition with every human in my life, I can celebrate the successes of others sincerely and genuinely empathize with their hardship, regardless of whether we feel the same, regardless of what position we are in, regardless of our current state. I have been trying so hard in the last year to avoid the toxicity and self-sabotaging nature of unnecessary and incessant comparison, and I still struggle with it.
To my friends: I hope you are happy, and that you have been able to do that thing that brings you joy, whatever that is. If I could go back I would tell my friend how excited I was for them, sincerely, to have accomplished something, to have set a goal and followed through, to have been challenged and been made better for it. You are incredible and spectacular, and you are you, and we are completely different. The things you kick ass at, that make your heart sing, are not the same that do mine. I am not you, and you are not me, and that is wonderful, and freeing, and exactly how it should be.
There is someone faster than me. Someone more intelligent than me. Someone better looking than me. But they are not me, and I’m okay with that.
CC Banner photograph courtesy of i5prof on Flickr