When you examine a Monet from across the room, the painting is crystal clear; it is almost as if you are staring into a photograph. Leaves glisten, and the reflections of the trees from which they hang are mirrored back in the water so believably that the viewer can be transformed to a different time and place. It is only as one gets closer to the painting that the brush strokes become apparent, and as one continues to approach and ultimately stands alongside the painting, it looks nothing at all like it did from far away. All of the strokes, shadow-work, and even imperfections, become clear. And living 7,000 miles away from home, it’s easy to look at the lives of my friends and family from afar like a Monet. The imperfections disappear as I picture their day-to day lives from across the ocean, and when times get rough, I often fall into the trap of daydreaming about the lives I have conjured up for them; nice apartments in hip neighborhoods, cool jobs, and the freedom to do whatever they want every night after work. But just as the Monet hanging on the museum wall creates an illusion, so too is it an illusion that life for my family and friends back home is perfect. Nobody wants to complain on the phone, not long distance, and especially not to a combat soldier, and so I hear almost exclusively about all the positive things happening, and far less if at all about the difficulties and disappointments. And so it is with these often-inaccurate details that I paint my imperfect picture of their lives. But as I approached the painting that I had created last month for the first extended period of time since I shipped out, I saw the brush-strokes. I saw the errors: the over-shaded areas, and the faults of my assumptions. Life in the big city is not idyllic; work is hard, free time is limited, and at the end of the day, my friends harbor the same fears and doubts that I do.
I think everyone in their twenties experiences the “grass-is-greener” affect at some point. In today’s world, our developmental years are spent competing, and the winner is always clear. You make the basketball team or you don’t. You’re an “A” student or you’re not. You get into the good college or you don’t. And then you graduate and the syllabus disappears. You are no longer comparing apples to apples, but apples to oranges. Lives can’t be compared to one another on the basis of who has the highest paying job, or who drives the nicest car. Family life and job satisfaction can’t be quantified. But there’s one problem. When we graduated, somebody forgot to tell us that. If there’s one characteristic that binds our generation together, it’s that we are always looking over our shoulder, and comparing ourselves to our peers. As Charles de Montesquieu once wrote, “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” Our grading-rubric is based on false assumptions. People of my generation spend hours on Facebook trying to construct the image of themselves that they want the world to see. A widely reported study, conducted by a Stanford graduate student, showed that believing that others have strong social networks can lead to feelings of depression. And what is Facebook but a way to show off one’s popularity and the vastness of his or her social network? But there’s a hoax here. The picture we see on Facebook is not the full picture; it doesn’t tell the full story. And so we use false assumptions to paint the pictures of the lives of others, and facts to paint the pictures of our own lives, and as a result, we fall dramatically short in the comparison, leading us to feel lonely, and left behind. In a generation of Americans more technologically connected to one another than any other before it, according to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness. All across the Western world, as documented in The Atlantic, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness. The sooner we realize that we are all worried about the same things, and dealing with the same issues, the sooner we can stop feeling alone, stop looking over our shoulders, and start looking forward. Only then can we successfully deal with the only competition that really matters; the one against ourselves.