I paused and stood in front of Flag, a painting of an American flag by artist Jasper Johns. I stepped closer and then back, and moved to my right and to my left. After I was done shifting my perspectives, I settled next to my friend, who was standing squarely in front of the painting. We stared together for a few minutes before she admitted, “I’m not sure I see what you see.” I smiled and said, “I’m not sure I see what you see.” And together we stood there for a few more moments before we exchanged our interpretations of a seemingly simple representation of a flag. We had created two very different stories.
My friend told the story of the colors, the number of stars, the layers of the paint, and the texture and movement of the brush strokes. As the art history major who studied Johns in college, I was coming at it from a different angle. I told the story of how Johns achieved the layers, the texture and dancing brush strokes, the artist’s personal history and relationships that inspired the work, the work’s place in the history of art, and Johns’ belief that the process is the art. I’ve always been interested in what’s beyond the canvas; the artist’s story and creative influences, factors that made Johns an easy favorite. Our two stories evoked different reactions to the work, which made me consider how the stories we create and tell about others influence our thoughts and feelings toward ourselves.
While analyzing Flag I realized perhaps the different ways we view and react to art parallels the different ways we view others and even ourselves. One way we view art is clean of any preconceived notions or prior investigation. This lack of knowledge allows our feelings and emotions to guide our response. It is more of a gut/emotional response. We also have a gut/emotional response about a person when meeting them for the first time, or by watching the interactions of strangers from afar. This response can even come from looking at a photograph. We can only judge those moments by how they make us feel—and it’s based on little else than how we see it. Another way we view art is by studying the personal, professional, social and political context in which the artist created the work and having those details affect our response. It is more of an “informed” response. This type of response is similar to a relationship with a close friend. Knowing their history, personality, and preferences gives you a broader and more realistic understanding of their responses and choices. I began to wonder about the value of identifying the difference between our gut responses and informed responses and how that can affect our relationship with ourselves.
My fascination with the lives of others is no secret and, in fact, informs many of my observations about my life, life in general, and even these letters I write to you each week. I listen to the conversations of strangers, watch their interactions, and vicariously experience every vacation and celebration of friends and acquaintances via photos on social media. I also can’t help but compare my life to the lives of others; I am human, after all. In fact, jealousy is a theme I’ve come up against again and again throughout my life—I’m sure many people can relate to this. It’s never jealousy over “stuff,” it’s more feeling like “their” life seems easier, more accomplished, more important. They seem happier. And as a result of these comparisons, I feel less than adequate.
As a kid, when I was feeling low and comparing myself to others, my mother used to remind me, “There is always more to the story.” Just like Johns’ Flag is more than just a painting of a flag, so too is a person’s life more than the two- minute conversation you had with them about their recent accomplishments, and certainly more than their photographs on social media. So the question is, how we can remind ourselves that “there is more than meets the eye,” and channel our simple gut response to tame the inclination to negatively compare ourselves to others? And can we instead seek a more informed response by reminding ourselves that every person has many layers and just as many questions, doubts, and complications as ourselves? I believe we can.
The first step is to acknowledge our feelings in those moments. What situations or things trigger those feelings? And while acknowledging those feelings, it’s equally important to give ourselves a pass to feel that way, to strip ourselves of the usual corresponding guilt. I tend to reprimand myself for comparing myself to others, or for feeling jealous of someone else’s accomplishments. Instead, I need to focus on why I am comparing myself and why I feel less than adequate. Once we acknowledge that this is happening and understand why we feel this way, we can begin to address the feelings, keeping in mind that there’s always more to the story. It is through this process that we are ultimately able to let go of the comparison, the jealousy, the feelings of inadequacy.
If this issue speaks to you, start by learning more about how to acknowledge with our article, Time to Acknowledge, and then take it step-by-step. Perspective is an abstract, and everyone’s is unique to them. Own yours by making it as clear and objective as possible!
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