Here are four stories that reveal the folly of comparing—our suffering, our efforts and rewards, our lives.
First, there is a famous Hasidic story about a man who complained and complained of his suffering and compared his life of woe to others who had easier lives. One day, he was given a chance to be free of his suffering. He was invited to enter a cloakroom where the cloak of every human being’s suffering was hung. He was to walk through the cloakroom and examine each cloak carefully and choose the one that seemed lightest and best. He spent many years trying on the cloaks and left wearing his own.
Another famous story is one told by Jesus, the parable of the vineyard and the laborers, as recorded in Matthew 20:1-16 (King James Version).
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.The strange logic of “how much more” of the kingdom of heaven (which does not nullify fair wages) means comparison is futile. Accept what is yours, what has been given to you. Are you diminished because another is favored?
Actually, this parable of Jesus reminds me of one of my favorite Hasidic sayings:
If I am I because you are, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.
To know oneself and the world truly is not to compare but to be.
Finally, here is a Sufi story that reveals yet another view of comparison and the limits of our perspective, one that shows how to compare, if one must compare.
There were once two brothers who jointly farmed a field, and always shared its yield.Stop comparing. Start accepting, yourself, as you are; all others, as they are; all else, as it is.
One day one of them woke up in the night and thought:
‘My brother is married and has children. Because of this he has anxieties and expenses which are not mine. So I will go and move some sacks from my share into his storeroom, which is only fair. I shall do this under cover of night, so that he may not, from his generosity, dispute with me about it.’
He moved the sacks, and went back to bed.
Soon afterwards the other brother woke up and thought to himself:
‘It is not fair that I should have half of all the corn in our field. My brother, who is unmarried, lacks my pleasures in having a family, and I shall therefore try to compensate a little by moving some of my corn into his storeroom.’
So saying, he did so.
The next morning each was amazed that he still has the same number of sacks in his storeroom, and afterwards neither could understand why, year after year, the number of sacks remained the same even when each of them shifted some by stealth. (Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams, p. 143)