Comparative Suffering

Most of us have probably experienced the “at least you don’t have it as bad as [insert name/race/gender/class here]” comparison. Whether it is a friend or colleague commenting after our heartfelt lament, or if it is our own thoughts trying to pull us from an overwhelming feeling deep inside, the phrase is (usually) intended to be helpful. But it seldom is.

I believe comparison of sadness or hurt is a losing proposition. Lining our pain up next to someone else’s serves no practical purpose and can actually be detrimental in many cases. Each of us experiences pain in very different ways. We are trying to put relational values on things that can not be measured.

I have an acquaintance who often watches and reads stories of people who have overcome extreme obstacles in order to pull himself out of his ‘funk’ when he’s feeling down. These stories seem to inspire him and allow him to refocus on more positive aspects of his life. I try to support him in his efforts, as it seems to work for him.

This method does not, however, work for me, which causes some very contentious exchanges between us. I am a person who tends to absorb the feelings of those around me. Not always clearly or correctly – but wholly. This means that watching a video about a double-amputee football coach does not inspire me to use my two working legs to do good in the world. Rather, it leaves me feeling heavy as I imagine every aspect of his life and how we, as a society, are not set up to include those with differing abilities. I picture the simple task of stopping by the store for bread and milk, knowing it’s not simple for him. The pain or sadness I was already feeling over something in my own life has just been magnified.

I draw in the pain of external sources and absorb them into my own. It’s not that I feel worse about whatever started my personal pain. Even as I hold them all within my heart, it is not a comparison. It is layers and layers of sadness or pain or anger from all the people around me, even many I don’t know, that build up in my thoughts and lay oppressive on my feelings. I will hold your sorrow completely as yours, separate from me, and yet I will physically ache from it for your sake. My empathy runeth over.

Beyond how we each feel and experience the events in our lives, we need to acknowledge that our abilities to tolerate or cope with pain or misfortune change from time to time. I remember a day long ago when I sat on the floor in my kitchen, surrounded by the sticky mess of a large batch of applesauce that had spilled over nearly every surface, and I sobbed. Full-on, body-shaking, sobs. Over applesauce. I know how outrageous it sounds now to have such an extreme reaction to something relatively meaningless. But, at that moment, it was more than I could tolerate. I don’t remember what led me to that fragile moment. I have no idea what was going on in my life around that time to warrant that reaction. But it was genuine, it’s what I felt at the time. It may seem disproportionate from the outside. That doesn’t make it wrong.  I can also say that just last week I spilled a large cup of coffee all over my office at work. The hot mess spread out across my desk, dripped into my drawer and covered files and binders. I spent the next 40 minutes slowly cleaning up the mess, wiping down page protectors one at a time. But I did not cry. I did not get angry. I simply took care of the issue. (I did miss my coffee, though…I only got one sip). Our reactions to events are mercurial.

We are all individual beings. Someone else’s pain, hurt, suffering, or sadness does not negate, reduce, or invalidate mine or yours. There is not a finite amount of space for suffering that we all need to share. “Oh – you can’t be sad about your dog running away because this person needs more of the suffer bucket because her grandmother has cancer.” That’s ridiculous. Your sadness over your missing dog is yours, based on your relationship with your dog. It has no bearing on anyone else’s feelings. Someone else’s anguish over a loved-one’s diagnosis of a terrible disease stems from their relationship together. Each is valid in it’s own right and can be as big or small as is appropriate to the people (dogs) directly involved. That’s it. No one else’s thoughts or opinions matter.

I knew someone who’s mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. There was a superficial feeling of misfortune from the child, but not the distress that one might have expected when receiving such news. The feelings spurred by this news were directly influenced by the relationship between these individuals. It didn’t matter what I expected the feelings to be. I am irrelevant to this scenario. My assumptions of expected reaction, the presumption of a quantitative measure of sorrow, is impertinent.

Feeling sad or depressed over events in your life is also not related to gratitude. It is illogical to assume that someone who is struggling to cope with a difficult situation therefore is unappreciative to the blessings in their life. I love my son. It took a lot of time and medical intervention for me to have this wonderful addition to my life. That gift is not lost to me, not for one single day. I still get tremendously overwhelmed by sorrow and melancholy at times, though. Being grateful for what you have does not wipe out pain or suffering. These are two distinct aspects of our feelings that can occur simultaneously.

I want us all to stop comparing our sorrow – or our joys – to anyone else’s. Hold them, honor them, as our own. Don’t let the voices of those around us make the journey of healing even harder. That’s what this process of comparison does. When I am faced with that “at least you don’t have it as bad as….” response, it doesn’t ease any of my anguish – that’s all still there. But, now someone added the guilt of worrying that I don’t really deserve to feel what I feel. I don’t need someone’s permission to have feelings – big or small. I need to be free to feel every bit of whatever is happening in my life and move through it in my time.

I will work hard to be more cognizant of my reactions to others’ pain. I will remember that I don’t know what it’s like in their world. And I will remember that if they have opened up to me about their struggle, it’s because they have placed some trust in me that I must honor. I hope you will try this, too, or to help someone else to do it. Otherwise, we’re only tearing each other down and pushing people away. That’s not community. We need to help each other through life, not make it harder.

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