Speaking of More or Less

A P R I L   2 0 1 3

You are my favorite person.

Life is more hectic than it used to be.

My sister is prettier than I am, but I’m smarter.

girl at windowNovember is the worst month of the year.

If I had more money I’d be happier.

You are the most inconsiderate person I’ve ever met.

The Prophet Mohammed is the greatest prophet.

My mother loves my brother much more than me.

The French are less friendly than the Italians.

Christianity is the one true way.

Who is the most fun person you know?

I like broccoli much better than Brussels sprouts.

The habits of comparative mind are pervasive, showing up in our characters and in our cultures, thinning the quality of our moment-to-moment experience and situating us in a world of not-quite, more and less — a shifting, tricky world of hierarchy-making in which the value of things is ever judged and rated, and we or it are implicitly found wanting. As the list above shows, comparative mind is thoroughly ingrained in, the ways we think and express ourselves, so much so that we might well protest that comparing things is an essential tool for making the world intelligible.

 And it is, to an extent. We need to know when the water for the baby’s bath is not warm enough, or which shirt looks better for this occasion. But these two examples show a practical, direct use for making comparisons, and the comparisons are limited to the immediate situation: the shirt to the occasion, the water temperature to the baby. They do not assert categorical value judgments.

A couple of years ago my eldest daughter quoted to me this line from the poet Robert Hass, paraphrasing the 17th Century Japanese poet Basho:

Basho said: avoid adjectives of scale, you will love the world more
                   and desire it less.

Oddly, the power of this line is not weakened by its own paradoxical use of adjectives of scale — loving more, desiring less. It almost makes fun of itself, revealing how persistent and unavoidable the logic of comparison is. And yet Basho still manages to make it clear that when we compare, when we set up distinctions of greater or lesser value, we pull ourselves back from direct intimacy with the world and join instead the restless range of desire. We count broccoli better than Brussels sprouts, judge our mother’s love in terms of quantity, consign November to be the lowest month in a scale of months, and that Joe or Jane is the funniest person, or the most inconsiderate person, or the most favorite in relation to everyone else. Thus we desire to associate ourselves with all those things, people, or feelings that are on the upper end of the scale implied by the adjectives of scale we use.

“Desire” in this sense means “I don’t have it but I want it,” or “I have it and I want to keep having it,” or “I want to avoid having its opposite.” Thinking and speaking like this arranges the world into hierarchies of preferences, subtly and not so subtly distancing us from what is. Basho, one of the great masters of haiku, tells us how to be of the mind of haiku: just the thing itself, the thing on its own terms, the taste of brussel sprouts as it is, the prettiness of my sister as it is, no comparisons necessary. It is what it is. Things are what they are.

When we live and speak this way — avoiding adjectives of scale — we don’t drag our judgments into our experience of things; we relax the imperative of liking and disliking what arises. What arises is just what arises, and we can respond to it directly. We allow it to be itself: the taste, the mother, the month, the moment of feeling hectic, the person we honor.

And in that way, without rating it, counting it, or judging it, the world comes close. It is what it is. Then we can desire it less, and love it more.