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You're Not Better Than Me and I'm Not Better Than You

10/15/2011 12:54 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2011

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - Too?

-- Emily Dickinson

As early as kindergarten, we become aware that there are some kids that everyone wants to play with. Select groups congeal around these kids and all the others are shunned. Thus begins a sense of social rank, the kinds of comparisons that become a tyranny in adolescence and can go on making us feel badly about ourselves long into adulthood. Somewhere during the bustle of midlife, we become less dazzled by superficial attainments and begin to judge ourselves and others by inner standards. Finally, as we become elders, a great leveling occurs and we realize that we are all essentially the same in facing the exigencies of living and dying.

At my 20th college reunion, I was among eight women who happened to sit together at our class luncheon. We had barely known each other years back, but minutes into the meal we were telling stories about how depressed we had each been sophomore year. At the time, we were sure that everyone else had been doing really well. We took turns describing our envy of each other while in the midst of a misery that had seemed to be ours alone. Externals are so deceiving.

They told me, "You looked so free and happy, riding off on your bicycle with your knapsack, poncho and long hair flowing." I admitted that I had actually been so desolate that I was unable to get my reading done unless I went for a long bike ride. For every two hours out in the Connecticut countryside, I was able to get an hour's worth of endorphin-derived concentration. As each of us confessed, it got funnier and funnier. We ended up laughing until we were weeping and our stomachs were aching.

To be able to laugh our hearts out like this, we had to be in our 40s and in another stage in our lives. We needed to be far enough away from those terrible comparisons and the loneliness of self-condemnation. That wretched adrift feeling at the cusp of our twenties was still vivid, but the poignancy finally had words. We each left the luncheon glowing, having discovered that our humiliations, vexations and anxieties had not been ours alone.

Years pass, and fissures slowly open in our facades. We get occasional glimpses like this into each other's inner-realities -- a friend unburdens herself about a long-held shame, a stranger on the train tells us about a difficult personal reckoning, a passage in a novel we are reading hits home. Other people's stories work on us. We suspect that even our deepest insecurity is likely to be shared. It is a relief to see how little uniqueness there is in our self-doubts. Everyone has some portion of regret and self-recrimination, but it takes years of living to become convinced of this and to start relenting on criticisms of ourselves.

Eventually, self-importance becomes exhausting at the same time that comparing ourselves to others comes to seem pointless. We tire of the dogged accrual of accomplishments that might set us above the rest, and we grow weary of suffering from what we have not attained. Once we have seen how much company we have in our difficulties, we give our humiliations less weight in our own reckoning and we are more apt to be open about our weaknesses. We may dare to let others see the aspects of ourselves we have been hiding, and in doing so we find that mutual confessions happen more readily and to greater depth. The sweetness of self-deprecating humor starts to burst forth in all directions, particularly among our aging peers.

As we get older, the quest to be somebody wanes. We know who we are, and have less need to seek external proof of our worth. We accept that there will always be someone who is doing so much better than us at any particular endeavor. A woman celebrating her 60th birthday attested to relief of having cast off her earlier strivings:

One of the great things about aging has been taking things easier, loosening up. I'm not so goal-oriented, not clawing my way anywhere any more. I'm just looking to see what's out there. I have been getting connected with people I wouldn't otherwise have bothered to know.

As the reunion was coming to a close, one of the women from the luncheon took me aside and said I was the person she had most admired at college. I insisted that this was impossible. She countered, "You followed your own star. I watched you taking courses according to your interests, not so it would look good for graduate school. I felt too afraid to do that." I was astonished. I said I had envied her for seeming to know where she was going, how her sails were full to the wind while I felt like a shipwreck. I admitted I had been jealous of her throughout our four years together. We stared at each other. If only we had known.

Aging becomes a profound equalizer as getting older reveals what we hold in common. To welcome our humbling brings us closer to true contentment. We have much less inclination to be judgmental, to scorn others, or find fault. We are far less impressed by how much money someone has made or how many professional accolades they have piled up. To be wealthy in relationships comes to seem the most valuable kind of fortune. Who is somebody and who is nobody? At last, we see through the arbitrary divisions and designations of status, realizing that the only real difference between people is how readily we each embrace our shared humanity. Life gets so much lighter.

Adapted from: "Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older," Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.

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