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 kid would never…

toddler wearing green hooded jacket pointing right index finger

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I feel like this is an obligatory post. Like, every person who has children has come to this conclusion and so why in the world would anyone need to read about it? But if I’ve found anything to be true, it’s that we read about what we know deep down to be true anyways because it reassures us and realigns us with the truth—the truth about this life, and the truth about ourselves.

So here it is: I used to judge people by how their kids acted.

If a child refused to eat their vegetables, I would think to myself, “my kids will eat whatever I put in front of them.”

If a child threw a tantrum about having to leave the park, I would silently assure myself that when I became a parent, my child would know exactly what was expected of them when it was time to leave anyplace. They would NEVER behave in such a way.

If a child pushed another kid, was unwilling to share, hit their parent, said a cuss word, or was flat-out disobedient, I would judge the parents hardcore. I would absolutely know that my kids would NEVER do those things because I would be a better parent than whoever this child’s unfortunate mom and dad were.

Parents of children older than mine, I humbly ask for your forgiveness.

Today, my daughter, who is a pretty awesome little girl if you ask me, was having a meltdown at 7am because, for whatever reason, 5am is the new start to her day (and my day too), and she gets pretty darn exhausted rather quickly. She would not eat her broccoli at lunch, and she cried giant crocodile tears at the library because she wanted to continue to play with the plastic ice cream cones, which she would NOT share with the other kids. And that was just today. Last night she pushed her cousin off of the four-wheeler bike because she wanted a turn and also refused to give her little brother a goodnight kiss…

Yes, to my utter dismay, my 2-year-old is not perfect. And contrary to what I previously thought, I am not in much control of what she does or doesn’t do.

This is not to say that I do not or will not take responsibility for things that my kids do. This is simply to say that I now understand that there are just some times that kids do things that do not reflect what their parents have taught them or how they were raised.

But here is what I’ve learned:

I’ve learned that when I judge other people, my brain cannot distinguish these judgments as separate from my own self-talk. This is backed up by brain science, actually. When we even think negative, judgmental thoughts about others, our brain registers them as evaluations about our own selves.

All these times I have looked at kids with that side and rolling eye, and have labeled their parents as “bad” or “unworthy” or “lazy” or “unfit”, I have really been evaluating the type of person and parent that I am or will be.

Yes, I might get that little rush of superiority and ego boost, but very much like the crash after a sugar or caffeine high, it’s not long before I’m wallowing in a judgment hangover that can only be cured with… more judgment.

One moment I’m all like, “Wow, her son just completely disrespected her. I would never let my kid get away with that. She must not be very consistent. I’m a way more intentional mother…”

And then the next moment, my little one does the unthinkable and throws a tantrum that has everyone at the Target check out line staring at us, thinking Lord-knows-what, and all I can do is keep the judging cycle going by getting defensive…

“Well those people have it easy. They all can afford a babysitter so they can go shopping by themselves, or their kids are older and less needy, or they probably have had way more sleep because they don’t have a newborn at home… how dare they judge me! Don’t they know they I am doing the best I can? What type of person judges a mom based on what their two-year-old does? Nothing is wrong with me… it’s them…”

 Except I don’t recall that I’ve just done the exact. same. thing. If—big ifthey are even judging me at all in the first place! They might, in all reality, be thinking something sweet like, “oh poor thing, I bet she’s exhausted and her little one is too. I sure hope she can find some time to rest and won’t beat herself up too much about how her kid is acting right now.” And wouldn’t that be sweet, and way more helpful, understanding, and honestly accurate too?

It’s then that I am reminded of the responses I want to have. And the fact that the actual cure for the judgment hangover isn’t more judgment at all. It’s compassion. It’s love. It’s a raised hand saying “me too girl; I get it”.

If my brain cannot distinguish between a commentary on someone else and a commentary on myself, then I want to rewrite my judgment commentary entirely and break this cruel, defensive cycle.

Because if judging other people makes me feel all the stress and shame I am doling out on them in my mind, then it’s working the opposite way I want it to. Deep down, my inner “mean girl” is hoping that judging people will make me feel better about my own self. This is why behind most every “mean girl” is actually an anxious, nervous, insecure little person—hurt people hurt people, right?—and my own inner “mean girl” is the same.

I don’t want to be judged for what I do on very little sleep, or for how I feel on my worst of worst days, so why would I want to be judged for what the little human I birthed, who has entirely no shame at all, does on a non-regular basis? I don’t.

So I’ve got to stop judging my fellow mamas and papas who also don’t deserve it. We are, in fact, in this together, if we want to be. And I do.

Also, I recognize that most of my judgments come from an entire lack of knowledge and experience. Case and point: I rarely judge a mama with a kid younger than me, and I find that most of these “my kid would NEVER”’s have popped into my brain far before I had even conceived a child.

But this entire revelation, which I think many of us with little humans running around our homes have also come to, has made me wonder how much of the way I judge people for other things is the same.

If I judge a person for being out of shape, does it also make me think poorly about my own body?

If I judge a person for their lack of preparation, does it also make me harsh with myself when I miss a deadline?

If I judge a person for how they choose to spend their free Saturday, does it make me also judge myself when I am not a productive or restful or… (insert whatever “should” is on my latest list at the moment)?

And I think it does. I think my judgments of others keep me trapped in judgments of myself. I judge because I think judgments protect me, but in truth, they make me put up the perfectionist façade and pretend like I’ve got it all together when I really don’t. They make me defensive and angry, and thinking the worst about others and about myself. In short, judgments are not helping me or doing anyone else any favors.

So this one is for my fellow mommies and daddies, but also for anyone at all who has ever judged anyone…(Think you don’t judge anyone, just listen to a few minutes of a radio station that plays music you dislike—we ALL can be judgmental at times.)

Let’s stop this judgmental cycle. Let’s choose to assume the best of one another. Let’s stop pretending we’ve got it all together when we really don’t. Let’s put an end to this negativity that keeps us all trapped. Let’s realize that thinking or saying “bad” about someone else does not make us “good” or better. Let’s be kind, understanding, and gracious to one another, if for no other reason than because it helps us be kind, understanding, and gracious to our own selves. I’m assuming you could also use a little extra grace around here, and so could the closest two-year-old’s mommy near you.

“Today I release the judgments I’ve used to protect myself. I am safe.”

On Unkindness and Cowardice and How Truth is Essential to Defeat Both

white and pink flowerson a book beside eyeglasses

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I am not the kindest person I know.

I am sometimes socially shy to the point of rudeness; there are moments when I value my own comfort over making others feel comfortable; I can be extremely harsh and judgmental, to my own self as well as to everyone else; I often have mean thoughts about other people that pop into my head.

I share this with you all today lest you think this post is coming from a “holier than thou” place. It’s not. I’m a pretty mean person sometimes. I think we all can be.

I recently went to a wedding this past year that was beautiful. The ceremony was heartwarming, the music was fun, the food was tasty, and the decor was gorgeous.

But the people… the people were mean.

No, not the bride and groom… I’m talking about their guests, whom I was one of.

There were countless times at the wedding where the guests made a snide remark about the wedding itself, or even the bride herself, or the way they chose to order the events. Overall, I got a sense of extreme judgment going on, and it was very unkind.

Being a pretty mean person myself, this still baffled me.

Why on earth would you attend a wedding where you didn’t love and support the couple getting married? Why in the world would you expect someone’s wedding to entertain YOU rather than be the bride and groom’s special day? Why, oh why, turn the happiest day of these people’s lives into a haughty evaluation session of their clothes, taste in music, wedding budget, and food choice?

I was astounded at the unkindness I saw from the so-called “guests” at this wedding.

I know that in American middle-class society, there is are norms of what a wedding should be. Sure, there are subcategories of style and location and theme, but there are some expectations about what happens at a wedding these days. I don’t know if I was ever aware of this before I got married myself, and I know that many of these key expectations were not present, or were dramatically altered at my own wedding.

So, self-centeredly, the unkind guests at this wedding, an event which I thought to be pretty standard with societal norms, made me wonder what on earth was said about my own wedding, and my own choices for one of the biggest moments of my life.

Was my choice to walk down the aisle in sunglasses to Hall and Oates’ “You make my dreams come true” scoffed at? Did people roll their eyes when the guests were asked to move chairs from the wedding location a few yards to the reception tables? What about the buffet of Hy-Vee catering– did people turn their noses up at it all? Was the dollar dance seen as cheap? Was our music contemporary and trendy enough? Did people think a dry wedding reception was lame?

I’m so glad that I didn’t think about these things the day of my wedding. I was too focused on becoming Mrs. Florine, and how grateful I was for all the things I wanted my wedding to be. What others wanted my wedding to be didn’t really enter my head. Maybe that was another sign of my self-centeredness, but if you ask me, that’s the way it should be for the bride on her wedding day.

A wedding is about two people getting married. 

It’s not about how fancy or expensive things are or even how smoothly everything goes. And while I think it also should be a fun party for the guests, I really think a wedding should be whatever the heck the bride and groom want it to be, and the guests can deal. It’s not about them. 

But regardless of what you believe a wedding should be like, I have to wonder how being kind plays into the lives of these guests I keep referring to.

As I stated earlier, I am far from the kindest person I know. But this is something I am not content to sit in.

I hate my unkindness. I hate my selfishness. I hate when my reflex is to be mean or judgmental or harsh, even if it’s behind someone’s back. No–especially if it’s behind someone’s back, because that means I don’t even have the spine to tell someone to their face that I think a certain way about them (which usually would imply that the way I think is cruel).

Or there is another option. Perhaps I don’t tell them something to their face because I’m too much of a coward to do so. Even as I write these words, I think there might be fear behind much of this blog post. Fear that stops me from telling these guests to their face that their comments are unkind and rude and downright mean.

Sharing the truth isn’t easy, and often we don’t get rewarded for it. Perhaps this is why we even have the temptation to gossip or talk poorly about someone behind their back: because telling someone something negative to their face is hardly ever appreciated, even if the comment is true or warranted.

The comments that these guests made were not warranted, and most of them weren’t true at all. They were just cruel evaluations and harsh opinions.

But here on this blog, where I evaluate these wedding guests and share my own opinions, harsh or not…. is it really much better?

While I refused to participate or even listen long to the gossip I heard, and while I didn’t make a cruel remark myself, I certainly didn’t call out these people for their unkind behavior.

I’m doing it now… behind the shield of a semi-ambiguous blog post.

And it’s now that I realize that truth has a huge part to play in the remedy of both unkindness and cowardice, two things I think we all struggle with from time to time if not everyday of our lives.

When we are unkind, the truth is we are often just masking an insecurity we are feeling. We do this by putting another person down. It makes us feel elevated ourselves because “at least we’re not like so-and-so”. Or sometimes it’s because we are masking a deep wound that we feel from the other person’s actions, and instead of addressing the hurt, the sadness, or the betrayal, we simply lash out at them and are either unkind to their face, or behind their back. Covering up these truths only makes the wound deeper, and the insecurity’s power over us stronger. It does no one any favors.

When we are cowardly, we hide from the truth that needs to be exposed, either in our lives, or in the lives others. We refuse to look at our own mess in the light and shy away from facing our fears. And we won’t speak up when someone else is being oppressed or abused or even just gossiped about because it means confronting someone else’s unkindness and potentially alienating ourselves, or becoming the brunt of more unkindness. Refusing to act out of cowardice hides the truth and allows others to become victims. It makes us into guilty bystanders instead of advocates for the less powerful. It also does no one any favors.

I am guilty of both unkindness and cowardice.

And so are you.

We all are.

To be kind means to speak the truth in love. This is also what it means to be courageous. 

To the bride and groom: I truly hope your day was everything you dreamed it would be. You both looked beautiful and the whole day was so special. I’m extremely happy for you both.

To the guests at their wedding: I truly hope that your unkind behavior is exposed to you in some way so that you can examine the root of either your insecurity or your hurt. And I truly apologize about not being courageous enough to speak truth to you at the time. While you may have been offended in the moment, I know that it’s my responsibility to be honest and loving and kind, and part of that means saying things that are uncomfortable but true.

This blog post is an attempt at sharing truth, feeble and untimely though it may be. I should have said something simple, kind, and true in the moment, and not allowed my cowardice to stop my mouth in the face of someone else’s unkindness.

I will try to do better next time, as I hope we all will.