Comparative Suffering: your piece of pie

2019 was hard for me.

grayscale photo of woman

Photo by Stefan Lobont on Pexels.com

As I type this, a flood a guilt washes over me. See, 2019 has been hard for many people that I know and love, and in my estimation, it’s been harder on them than me.

My mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. As a result of emergency brain surgery, she now has epilepsy, suffering from seizures almost monthly.

My best friend’s husband recently broke both of this elbows after falling off a 13-foot ladder, 170 miles away from her. She helped him to do literally everything in a hotel room since they were so far from home, all the while trying to keep up with college graduate work, and her own internship and job.

My grandmother lost her husband of 65 years, my Papaw, in October of last year. Six grown children spread across the country all lost their dad.

A woman I serve with at Bible Study Fellowship has lost her daughter, and her heart aches to be away from her grandchildren, who are missing their mommy, and who live thousands of miles away.

My husband’s friend lost his wife a year ago, right after she delivered newborn triplets. He now has three babies who look like her, but no companion to help him take care of them or share in the joys of their development.

My friends at the Agape Center just lost a dear friend to a short but intense battle with liver cancer. This, among colicky newborns, the stomach flu, previous yet fresh family losses, and a generally tough season serving a hurting and underprivileged community.

I know of a man who’s daughter fell off a golf cart, and seemed totally fine, but now has severe brain damage and needs constant care and medical attention. She’s not the same little girl she once was. His family’s whole world has shifted.

There are people living in cardboard boxes in Calcutta. There are people living in tents under viaducts and highway bridges in the below-freezing windchill right in my hometown of Chicago. There are girls selling their bodies out there on 103rd and Michigan, right down the street from the place I call home. There are over-crowded classrooms and disheartened teachers–ones I can identify with all too well from my own teaching days. There are innocent people in prison. There are men who work all day, everyday, with no breaks and who still can’t catch a break from the relentless bills and car break-downs, and sick kids.

When I think of these people in my life, I begin to compare my own struggles and heartaches to theirs, and a level of disgust sets in.

How can I be so ungrateful? Why would I even compare my life with theirs? Am I kidding? I have a great life!

Truth be told, I started writing this post before the pandemic. You can probably tell simply by the reference to Chicago wind-chill, or the crowded classroom–Illinois, at least, will not be finishing off this school year in a classroom setting due to COVID-19 and it was in the 60’s just this morning. I thought about editing the beginning of this piece, but I decided not to. I’m going to leave it as is. I believe it still can be relevant, even in light of what’s changed, and especially with what I’ll get into next. Also, I’m sort of tired of everything changing, and pretty much everything has since “social distancing” became a common phrase in our vernacular.

My husband recently reminded me of something that he learned in counseling–that there are degrees of suffering, but we also can only compare our current suffering to that which we ourselves have experienced. There is no comparing our pain to the pain of others. We all experience it differently.

What sets me over the edge will not be what does so for another person.

What completely derails someone else’s life may not phase me nearly as much.

But we do this all the time–compare our hurt to someone else’s pain. It’s called comparative suffering, and it comes from the false belief that empathy is like pie pieces, and once you’ve doled out the last crumbling morsel, it’s just gone. This is why we get it into our heads that we can’t feel like our world is falling apart because, “compared to fill-in-the-blank”, we’ve got it made.

This has come up so often for me during quarantine.

I feel depressed or lonely or stressed, and then I feel guilty for feeling those things because I know my shelter-in-place is absolutely a privilege. I am not a nurse in the COVID ward or a mail carrier going door to door with no off-days. I am healthy, and so is the rest of my family at this current moment. What right do I have to feel sad? I should feel grateful…

The truth is though, I do feel those negative feelings, even if I’m not suffering the way that another person is. And the truth is, I’m also grateful, even if I feel lonely. I still know I’m blessed, even if I feel depressed. I still am overall very content, even in moments of stress.

There is enough empathy inside of me to feel compassion towards myself and also to feel compassionate for others more or less fortunate than I am.

And this is true for all of us. It’s true for you too, regardless of where you find yourself today. There is empathy enough to go around for you and for the first responders and for the homeless and for the very sick.

raspberry pie

Photo by Asya Vlasova on Pexels.com

To quote a dear friend of mine, “what’s real for you is real for you”. So let’s stop beating ourselves up for how we feel. Let’s be honest about where we’re at, in general, but especially in this world-wide pandemic. Because, while it’s true that each of us will experience this season differently, this is also something that can and does unite us all in a way nothing else in our generation has before. And there is enough empathy and compassion for each of those unique experiences, as well as that world-wide connection. There always will be.

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