Sunday, May 07, 2006

Comparing Oneself

May 7, 2006

Comparing Oneself

A certain patient has a visit with his psychiatrist. He’s feeling low, anxious, perhaps a little depressed. An irrational sense of dread is nagging him. He’s listless and paces the office. Finally he goes to the window and looks out.
The doctor’s office is in a hospital complex of historical brick buildings with genuine slate roofs. The walls are covered with ivy up to the rooftops. The complex has new sidewalks, sprawling lawns and an abundance of shade trees. Two one way roads, separated by a grassy island of maple trees, meander down to the hospital entrance which has an imposing assemblage of wrought iron gates. The center island is a favorite of joggers.
Directly below the office window the patient sees a man walking his dog. He has a cup of coffee in his hand and a newspaper tucked under his arm. The dog sniffs at every bush and tree trunk. The man allows the dog free reign and ambles after.
The patient observes the man and dog for awhile and then suddenly says to the doctor, who is inspecting some sort of paperwork, “Now there’s a happy man down there doctor……..out in the morning sunshine walking his dog, cup of coffee in his hand, newspaper under his arm. What a lucky guy.”
The doctor stirs from his concentration
“What’s his name?” the doctor asks absently.
“His name?” The patient looks puzzled.
“Yes……his name.”
“How should I know?” the patient answers with a shrug.
“You don’t know him?”
“Of course not! He’s just a man walking his dog……”
“Precisely the point,” the doctor answers and now he sits back in his chair and speaks to the patient directly. “You don’t know anything about this man. For all you know he may have just been informed by his doctor that he only has a short time left to live. Or maybe his wife just died and he’s walking the dog and feeling his grief. How can you tell who he really is? Can you know by looking down at him from this window? It’s a very small window on the world, believe me.
“I note that you compare yourself to other people all the time. You reckon your acceptability according to how you score in these comparisons. But you’re less than democratic in your choices of people with whom to compare yourself. You never compare yourself, for instance, to the Albanian refugees who have been driven out of their homes with just the clothes on their backs, who have to sleep on the ground without shelter, who have nowhere to go and nothing to feed their children. How come you never compare yourself to people like that? You only compare yourself to fantasies in order to sustain a frame of reference for your own rejection.”
With this the doctor smiles knowingly and splays his hands, palms upward.
The patient stares blankly, nodding his head, noting a point well taken.


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