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

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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.

didn’t have time

I had words caught like flies

The fear, a web thick in my spider’s throat

My child brain fooling my age

that I’d have some time

–always another opportunity

to be.

But human frailty is an ugly thing

That I thought I could ignore it in icy indifference

(I am not capable of such)

You see,

this heart of mine is warm and dripping with emotion and un-numbed pain

It crashes over my frame in blood-waves,

guilty of still being here and alive…

While you, my friend, no longer are.

O’ how I regret as I never have before

Mortality has never felt so close

Not even at “mid-life”

and yet a crisis of a heart-wreck

a train of tears besmeared my gown

My daughter, like the maid, keeps straightening and primping

with Kleenex.

As if wiping away the evidence that I feel

would change the fact that your death

has stopped my inner world.

Outer keeps spinning.

Altogether.

IMG_3901   

I never got to say a proper goodbye

On the phone, you rushed off to go use the bathroom.

The package you sent never came, but if it does, I will likely loose

it.

–cue Kleenex yet again–

Oh my dear,

Could I claim that I loved you “best of all”?

I wish I had loved you better.

I thought I had time.

I didn’t.

On Pouring Into Others: a privileged girl and a dying man

refill

This sign hangs in my little make-shift office that is in reality just a corner of my dining room blocked off by bookcases and a paneled screen.

I often look at this sign as a reminder that I need to take care of myself SO that I can take care of others. “Put on your own oxygen mask first”. But today I am wondering to myself if I use this as a justifier.

How do we know if we are really pouring into others? 

I get up at around 5:45am and have my quiet time with God. I eat some zucchini bread with some coffee while reading and journaling out my prayers. I do my p90X workout at 7am, then clean the kitchen until about 8, then work on some marketing projects for our family business. Around 9:30 I step out of my little oasis, my safe-haven of a home, and rush off to the Kroc Center to teach my weekly PiYo class.

On the way I see people. I see a man sleeping on the sidewalk near a gas station, a tarp covering him. I see women walking with their children all bundled up, trying to catch the bus on this blustery cold day. I see men with cardboard signs making their way to the busy intersections near the highway, trying to gain the sympathy of passer-bys.

I teach the class to about 8 participants and we have a great workout and prayer time after; specific prayer is requested for our neighborhoods that are riddled with gang violence. After that, I drive home, get out of the car, and I see my neighbor. I yell his name and he immediately turns directions to come towards me.

(I’ll call him Leo, but it’s not his real name.) Leo lives in a little house across the street from me– lived there for a long time. Leo is about 45 years old, but he looks over 60. Leo is dying of lung cancer.

He’s completely drunk, as usual, but I stand with him by the curb and listen to him talk for a good half hour, making sure he’s not in the street when cars drive by. I don’t really know what to say or how to help him and it makes me feel helpless.

His mind wanders, and he keeps talking, but I’m not sure about what. The alcohol is making him slurr his words and the man has only a few teeth left, so it’s hard to understand him. I recognize the hurt in his voice. I have no idea what he’s going through right now– to know that he’s dying and to know that he could have prevented it–but I can imagine.

I can imagine and it brings tears to my eyes. He tells me they will take him to the hospital soon, but until then he keeps staying with friends and family because he doesn’t want to stop breathing in his sleep and lay alone in his house until someone finds him. He wants to be found by friends. This is where I start to cry.

He reflects on his children. His wife. He hopes he can kiss her again in heaven. He tells me in one breath that he is so angry at himself for doing this to himself, and then in the next that he has no regrets and that he’s happier than he could hope to be.

He smells like cigarettes and liquor, and I wonder if he will remember this conversation. I hope he will remember the hug, the warm smile in the bitter cold wind, the patience with which I try to listen to him. I hope… I wish he would surrender this habit of cigarettes and booze. I wish he would try to live out the rest of his short life in sober consciousness, with intentionality and dignity. I wish he knew something other than drunkenness and a chemical high.

I wish I could encourage him to change now, to let him know that it’s never too late… but… it is too late, isn’t it? He’s going to die. Soon. What would I do? Would I change? If there no hope for a future improved by my choices? Would I even try?

I suddenly want to leave, and I feel so guilty for it. But it’s cold and my ears are starting to go numb, and I really can’t understand a lot of what Leo is saying. Still, I listen intently. This conversation is making me so sad and I can’t do anything about it. But he seems comforted just talking to me, so I stay and I listen, and I pray…

Lord, please give me the words you would have me speak.

Nothing.

Lord, please show me what I should do.

Nothing.

Lord, work through me so that I can help this man.

Nothing.

What the heck? God, why can’t you use me here? I’m right with him! I can do something, can’t I?

But God didn’t have anything else for me to do. There was nothing of myself that I could pour into Leo. There was nothing I could change in him. There was nothing I could say to make it better. My cup, regardless of whether it was full or not, was seemingly not pouring into any of the people around me who seemed so desperately to need filling.

And even now I ask myself, why? Why couldn’t I have helped? Why couldn’t I have done something?

I think the answer is a little more simpler than I usually like: I am incapable.

I don’t really know if Leo simply needed someone to talk to, or if there was something that he needed to hear in that moment. All I know is that I didn’t do any “pouring into”. All I did was listen to him speak, simultaneously listening to the quiet sound of my heart breaking.

I go inside my warm home with quaint decor and a clean kitchen, with two cats sleeping on the chairs and reminders to “do all things with love” on the walls. I feel utterly guilty for having what I have, living how I live, and owning what I own.

I only hate my own privilege when I can’t seem to use it to help someone who doesn’t have it.

My cup– if we’re going with this whole metaphor thing still– feels completely drained dry after my interaction with Leo. I’m emotionally exhausted, guilt-stricken, and heartbroken for my neighbor, and for this community at large.

“It is not selfish to refill your own cup so that you can pour into others. It’s not just a luxury. It is essential.”

But to refill my cup would, in fact, seem selfish–like a luxury. In fact, most of what I did today– the quiet time, breakfast, workout, job, cleaning, and marketing work– it all seems like luxury compared to what I see when I look outside at this dark and hopeless part of the city that I’ve now been calling home for the past 3 years of my life.

“Put on your own oxygen mask first!”

–I’ve been told to do this, but it doesn’t seem right. Not when people are sleeping on sidewalks and sleeping at friend’s houses because they might die in their sleep.

No it doesn’t seem right when there are people in need everywhere and when it’s really hard to know if helping is helping or if helping is hurting… a lot of things seems pointless and stupid when looking at the heartbreak that surrounds me.

This world isn’t fair. I believe that this outrages God more than it could even outrage us.

And I believe that God loves Leo and the homeless man at the gas station and the bundled up mommas and their little sweet babies and the men standing at the intersections with signs. He also loves the drivers who pass them by and the ones who roll down their window to toss them some change. He even loves the helpless white girl who doesn’t know what to say to a dying man.

This world is dark, riddled with guilt, and it’s so sad. But the beautiful thing is that God’s cup never runs dry, and he continues to pour it out in the form of Christ’s blood. It doesn’t always look like I think it should look, at least not on this broken side of eternity.

But it’s like Leo said to me today, “Oh I believe it’s going to be much better after death Miss Claire. I do. I just don’t know what it will hold, and that’s what scares me, but I believe it’s going to be better than this…I do believe that…”

I do too Leo. I believe it will be a time and a place where all of our cups will runneth over.