Comparative Suffering: your piece of pie

2019 was hard for me.

grayscale photo of woman

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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.

my year of less

woman sitting on wooden planks

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It’s twelve days into the month. They tell me that by this time, most people have already broken their new year’s resolutions.

I’ve tried the resolution thing before. It’s been these etherial statements like, “get in shape”, or “stop being negative”; but like, what on earth does that even mean and how the heck would I even measure that?

Then I stumbled across this whole “One Word” thing, and that was pretty great. I did really feel God lead me to a single word during a single season. The “problem” was that it was never within the confines of a single year. Case and point, I started my One Words in 2014, and I’ve only had 4 words since then. It seems God needed far more time for me to learn tough words like “surrender” or “journey” than one little neatly-packaged year.

In fact, I think I’m still learning all of them–slow, surrender, journey, and grace–and I’m sure I’ll keep circling back to these little words with their powerful lessons on a more-than-annual basis.

But this year I did feel a release from my last word, which was “grace“, and it came right before Thanksgiving.

I’ll spare you the details, mostly because they are pretty private, but I’ll tell you that I finally learned how to forgive someone major in my life, and it was an eye-opening experience for me.

Letting go of “grace” isn’t really letting go of “grace”, but I think I’ve learned it well enough to loosen my grip of focus on it for the time being.

God has given me another word to turn round and round like a prism in my hand, examining it and asking “what are you? what do you need to teach me?”

The word is very simple, and almost painfully vague. It’s “less”.

Less? Less of what? you might ask. Good question.

As my former blog title/alias once stated, I’m a “wannabe minimalist” with the tagline, “less stuff; more freedom”. So the “less stuff” part is truly on my heart, for sure. But the truth is there is a lot more in my life that I think I need less of than just tangible “stuff” (though I guess it all is just “stuff” isn’t it?)

I’m a list person, so here is a list of things I want less of in 2020:

less spending

less coveting

less consuming

less stress

less idols

less selfishness

less striving

less preoccupation

less anger

less exhaustion

less bitterness

Part of this pursuit of less has lead me to take a shopping ban a la Cait Flanders’ “A Year of Less”, which, as she points out in her book, is also very much a browsing ban. See, I like to spend my time looking at things on Amazon, price comparing, reading reviews, adding items to my wish list, or my kids’ wish list, or searching the lightning deals for gift ideas. It reaches a fever pitch at Christmastime, which it probably why this year’s word hits right at the New Year this go round. Browsing often leads to purchasing things I don’t need (I did say I was a wannabe minimalist– did you catch that?). I would feel a little giddy rush getting items in the mail. Even if the items were not for me, but for someone else. This made me concerned that “retail therapy” was actually becoming a thing in my life, and that thing is actually, in reality, just a funny way of saying idolatry.

Online shopping was becoming an idol, and that was no good.

Another part of this pursuit of less has lead me to officially delete my Facebook account. This is the reason most anyone who might possibly have read this, probably won’t. But Facebook made it so easy to compare myself to other people and be preoccupied with basically nothing at all, and it was a temptation to check out and not be present to my actual life. So it’s gone, at least for the year, but probably forever. I’m really over social media you guys, and I’ll probably never be an established blogger for this reason. I think I’m okay with that.

And probably the most etherial of the bunch, I want less stress.

I remember in high school–flippin’ high school guys!–I was stage managing this show and the director said to me, “Claire, you always seem stressed. You should like, smoke or something.” (This was a college student director for a summer project, not a teacher telling me to go smoke some weed, which, for the record, I didn’t. Smoking is not one of my vices, though I’ve got plenty others.) And then, this past July, I went to get a massage. The masseuse who worked on me didn’t remember me from the last time I was there until she felt my shoulders, which were completely riddled with knots. “Oh yes, she said, I remember this tension. I don’t want to upset you, but yeah girl, this kind of stress is pretty rare.”

This, this is true about a gal who’s been trained in the Alexander Technique and used to teach Yoga? This, also is true about a very entrenched Enneagram Type One, desperately hoping that there is an actual way to achieve perfection (yes, I am aware there is not, but I am also not one to give up on my dreams so easily, it seems).

So yeah, yeah, I’m trying to be less stressed. Trying to let go of striving for the elusive perfection, trying to be everything to everybody. Trying to make sure that everyone and their mom likes me, like, really likes me. Trying to say “no” more often because too much on my calendar makes me absolutely crazy. Trying to leave early so I’m not stressed about being late. Trying to…. trying to… trying to….

Aye, there’s the rub. All this “trying” stresses me out. And here we come to my word again.

Less.

Less trying. Less striving. Less working at it. Less taking care of it. Less fixing it. Less “I’ll get it together, don’t worry; I’m on it.”

Less doing. 

More being.

Because, in reality, when there’s less of something, it leaves room for more of something else. Something better.

Less spending leads to more saving.

Less coveting leads to more contentment.

Less consuming leads to more creating.

Less stress leads to more joy.

Less idols leads to more freedom.

Less selfishness leads to more sacrifice.

Less striving leads to more stillness.

Less preoccupation leads to more presence.

Less anger leads to more connection.

Less exhaustion leads to more energy.

Less bitterness leads to more forgiveness, yes, more grace.

…   …   …   …   …   …   …

So, although this year of “less” will also be a year of “more”, the “less” is what I feel led to focus on. Less stuff, less time commitments, less stress, less worry, less striving, less to-do’s… When faced with a choice to add an unnecessary “more” to my life, I will consciously choose less