I want to talk about a touchy subject but one that seems to keep cropping up in all sorts of varied contexts lately; comparison.
We’ve been brought up in a society that seems to constantly compete and compare. Firstly, I believe our education system has a lot to answer for with it’s unrivalled obsession with academia. Once you step foot into secondary school, divisions are immediately created by the ‘streaming’ process where young people are taught in ‘sets’ according to their ability. I’m not saying this is wrong necessarily, I understand this system has it’s benefits and that there’s a need to do this to some degree to inform teaching and progress rates, however, such a system makes it so easy to forget all the other important aspects of an individual, the things, other than academia, that make them clever and capable and interesting.
It also seems to diminish the significance of alternative learning styles as well as the benefits of learning from others. The focus has always been academic ability and I’ve always been a big believer that this is just one small part of what can actually make a person ‘clever’. So many other qualities make a person interesting or successful that don’t display themselves as academic that aren’t always valued or nurtured in the same way by the education system as it stands: physical skills, inter-personal qualities, a great sense of humour, the ability to connect, a great eye for art, the ability to craft and to make, the ability to see things in a different way to others, a caring and helpful nature; the list goes on…..
At school, even when the subject matter was not academic, but physical, for example, the focus on competing and the importance of winning always seemed to overshadow the simple enjoyment of physical activity. I’m sure this is one of the reasons I don’t really enjoy it. I was never very good at it and was never going to win anything so what was the point?
I recall sports days at primary school where the best I could hope for was third place in the egg and spoon race. That’s an actual truth right there. I remember it so distinctly because I’m certain it was the only sports day placement I ever received. I reckon I’ve still even got the certificate somewhere, tucked in the back of my Record of Achievement folder, such was it’s significance.
And do you remember the horror of your fellow classmates being allowed to pick out their own teams for sports at school? Do they still do that? One by one, the best, most able sports people were selected (closely followed, if not preceded, by the most popular or threatening kids in school) until only the unpopular, unfit kids remained. How dreadful. It makes the hairs on my arms stand on end at the thought of it.
I appreciate there is absolutely a place for competitive sport and that it should be encouraged and nurtured in the right time and place, don’t misunderstand me (my sporty little sister is a netball coach and would kill me for saying otherwise!) but imagine a system that instead of focusing it’s energies all on the people who are already good at, and interested in sport, looked more closely towards the children that aren’t. Those who aren’t good at it, who don’t at first appear interested. Imagine if you could find a way to help them enjoy exercise, to help them identify a type of physical activity that gave them pleasure, that they could engage with, just for fun! Not to mention the obvious health benefits (mental as well as physical). Imagine the increased self-esteem in realising that you don’t actually have to win or be good at it – just enjoy it!
Unfortunately, I’d say that in my personal experience, instead of really learning to appreciate the life-long health benefits of keeping fit and finding fun in physical activity, the physically capable were encouraged to become athletes and sports people and the fat kids were left to get fatter.
There are so many different aspects of intelligence. Although I was reasonably academic at school, choosing to focus my efforts on my passion – theatre, was often considered ‘a waste of time’ by teachers and peers. When it came to choosing options in Year 9, teachers and careers advisors would frequently question how useful ‘theatre studies and drama’ would be for my future. They’d say that it ‘wasn’t really academic enough’ and ask ‘how it could possibly lead to a career?’. Luckily for me, my parents never questioned it too much and always supported my choices.
I always had a passion for theatre from as early as I can remember. I loved performing and I loved watching it. The thrill I would get from seeing all kinds of live performance and theatre was unlike anything else I’d experienced. The way it could immerse me, swallow me up with whatever emotions it conjured up; true escapism from real life. As I got older and was lucky enough to experience theatre in an education setting, I could see first-hand it’s ability to educate, to influence opinion, to challenge perception and emotionally engage it’s audience, encouraging them to question things they thought they already knew and challenge them to behave differently. I saw it’s power and I knew I needed to be a part of that.
These days, I can happily stick a firm and smug middle finger up to those who questioned my passion and judgement because I have, so far, made a very good career from my love for theatre and have put my Theatre Studies A level and University degree to very good use, thank you very much. Creating and delivering theatre that does exactly as i describe above is what I now do for a living. So, from personal experience I believe that following your passion and doing what you enjoy will always take you far. Even if you don’t earn enough to annually holiday in the Seychelles or live in a small mansion, it will mean you are almost always happy in your work. And what can be more important than that? (#mentalhealth)
Moving on from the education system. There’s a lot of talk about ‘Comparison Syndrome’ lately with a particular focus on social media and our modern-day ability to gain a little ‘peak’ of insight into each other’s daily lives.
I. LOVE. INSTAGRAM. There, I said it! I do not, and will not apologise for my presence on it. It’s one of my favourite hobbies and a healthy way of documenting our daily life and sharing images that I feel are beautiful or meaningful (to me). It’s a great photo-documentary I’m always able to look back on. I can remind myself of what was going on at any given time of our lives – especially the good times, the positive memories.
I’ll be honest, I don’t always want to post the shit stuff. I’m happy to be open about the more challenging parts of my life and share them with friends or anyone who directly asks, and I regularly refer to those, more ‘trying’ moments in my stories (which disappear after 24 hrs) or in my blog. But I don’t necessarily want to look back on videos of Martha having a meltdown or me looking shocking without my make-up or feeling frumpy and overweight. I want to feel good about myself. I want to feel good about my life and look back on the happy, positive moments, not dwell on the less happy ones. In doing so, I’m not trying to make anyone else feel worse about themselves. It’s a snippet of my life and anyone using social media (at all) should always do so with applied logic and social intelligence. It’s not for airing your dirty linen and it’s certainly not a completely true reflection of reality. It’s a small part of that. We all have the choice to use social media in the way we choose to, in the same way we have the choice whether we want to use it at all (!). The trick is, not to compare your own life to that ‘carefully selected representation’ of others. It’s always only perception anyway. We’re all different and choose to live our lives differently.
One of the comparisons I find particularly infuriating is relating to autism. I completely get why people do it; we’re all looking for common ground and it’s human instinct to want to make someone feel better, by showing comradery and letting you know you’re not alone in something, I get that, but I can’t tell you how annoying it is when you tell someone about an issue you’re having with your autistic child and they respond with something along the lines of ‘Yeah, but they (kids) ALL do that don’t they?’ or ‘That happens to the best of us’ or ‘We’ve all been there, haven’t we?’. Actually no. Your experience of that particular thing is NOT the same as mine. Or your one experience might be just that; one experience whereas mine might happen EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I do understand why you feel the need to compare your neurotypical child with my, neurodiverse one but please try hard not to. In the same way I will try not to compare my experiences with yours – even between autistic children no two experiences or children are ever the same.
That’s actually one of the most difficult and lonely things about parenting Martha. Even though I subscribe to a number of ASC (Autism Spectrum Condition) support groups and forums, and despite the fact she attends a special school for others with the same or similar diagnosis, it’s hard to find others who can completely understand or who have the same life experiences as you do. There are similarities of course and it’s comforting when you find those areas of common ground but it’s rarely the same.
Martha, for example, can be very physically aggressive. She doesn’t care whether your child has autism or not, whether they are smaller than her, or if they suffer with anxiety in the same way she does; she still, for whatever reason, may attack and hurt them. No-one likes it when their child is hurt (of course they don’t!) and in my experience, people (on the whole), are not very understanding or forgiving of children (or their parents) who hurt others , even if you try explaining to them that your child has autism and that they’re unable to express their emotions another way and don’t really understand what they’re doing. Mostly, people just don’t get it. And why should they? I don’t get it either. It’s out of the realms of what we know and have come to expect of ‘normal’ social interaction. Hurting one another is not acceptable and we’ll do anything to protect and defend our own children, won’t we?
Anyway, I’ve garbled on rather a long time and find myself going off-topic and I’m still not really sure I’ve said what I wanted to (!).
I suppose, overall, it’s just to encourage you not to compare yourself to others. It doesn’t matter a jot what someone else is doing with their life and how that differs to yours. Do what you love and to hell with what anyone else does or thinks. I definitely believe you can take enjoyment in seeing what others are up to; I bloody love a good old scroll through Instagram seeing how people spend their time and money or how they decorate their homes. I take so much inspiration from others and am always finding new makers and products I like by following like-minded people and accounts on ‘the gram’ (which does no good for my bank balance!). But I do try not to measure those people and what they are doing, against my own life. We’re different people, with different tastes and preferences, in different circumstances and whose paths have led them to different places in their lives. How can you compare that?
They say that comparison is the thief of joy and I say that’s so true.
‘A flower does not think about competing with the flower next to it, it just blooms.’