Yesterday afternoon, Lovely Husband sent me out for a walk. Usually, any exercise I get happens after dark, so I took my time and looked around for a change. It was that time before twilight, where the sun is still up but the world is cast into shade; this meant that lights were on in people’s windows but their curtains weren’t yet drawn. This meant that I could spy on the lives within. In one window, a father tried to fold laundry in piles on a bed, while his toddler jumped on them and messed them up again. In another, a couple ate dinner, both looking at their phones.
I’m lucky to live in a pretty little village, which was made commutable a few years ago by way of a huge infrastructure project, but still retains a rural flavour. My walk takes me past large stone houses with rolling lawns and deep driveways, interspersed with pretty little weatherboard cottages and white picket fences. It’s very easy, around here, to feel as if every occupant of these houses has a charming, picture-perfect life.
I like to pretend I’m in an Austen novel, wandering these roads; perhaps I’m Elizabeth, walking across the countryside to Netherfield Park. When I read about her being mocked for being a great walker, I get a flash of envy: lucky Elizabeth, having the free time to be able to just walk across the countryside when she wants to, without worrying if she’ll be late or the twenty other things she should be doing with that time. I tend to ignore the fact that she was also poor and unmarried in a time when women couldn’t own property, vote, or enjoy central heating. Because it’s easier to focus on the things you wish you had than the things you are lucky to have.
Looking in those windows made me remember that it’s never true. Even if we don’t have toxic secrets bubbling under the surface, or dramatic dysfunction, chances are that we have a niggling sense of disquiet that our lives aren’t as impressive as they should be, or we settled for the wrong partner, or we’re just plain fed up sometimes. You can’t see those things from a snapshot inside a window, of course, either; perhaps that harassed father spent the day throwing his small child up in the sun-bathed air, both of them laughing with glee, and perhaps that couple were reading out titbits from their friends and settling into the sort of cosy gossip session that is one of the best things about being married.
Because that’s the thing about the line ‘don’t compare your insides with another person’s outsides’. It’s not the contrast between the inside and the outside that’s at issue, really. It’s the comparing. If you think about that line, it suggests that if only you knew the truth of someone else’s insides, you’d realise that they had their demons and their issues too, and feel better about yourself. But that’s quite ugly, really. It shouldn’t take someone else being unhappy, or insecure, to feel alright yourself. If everyone in my picturesque little village has a picturesque life filled with country rambles, organic fruit salads and love as radiant as summer sun, that’s got to be a good thing. And if it leaves you feeling left in the shadows, it doesn’t mean that you should remember the darkness in their lives. It just means you need to step into the light of your own.