. . . you should meet Mr. So-and-so. His life’s really bad. You’ve got it good. You should just thank your lucky stars you’ve got it so good and quit your complaining.
I hate that. I hate hate hate when people say that to me. And I hate it more when people say it to other people. And you know what? I probably hate it most when I hear people say it to themselves.
It’s just poison to me.
Why does there have to be a Who’s-Got-It-Worst contest? Why can’t I be upset I stubbed my toe while I’m standing next to an amputee? Why? My toe hurts. It really hurts. It hurts worse than you expect a teeny tiny appendage to hurt and no matter what I do I can’t stop the pain and it’s throbbing up through my shin I slammed it so hard! Yes the poor guy next to me longs to have a toe he can stub, but does it make my toe hurt any less? Would he not cry out in agony if he magically regained a leg and a toe and subsequently slammed it into a curb? I’m pretty sure he would. And, the right response, I suppose, would be: “Well, at least you have a toe.”
How is that helpful? How is that kind and compassionate? How how how?
Why can’t my toe just hurt because it hurts and why can’t you just say, “I’m sorry your toe hurts. Gee that sucks!”? Then when my toe stops hurting I can carry on in my quest to solve all the world’s ills.
So, somebody does this to me. I’m overwhelmed by life and this person’s response is, essentially, “Suck it up and deal, you should see what real anguish is like.” That is so not helpful. My anguish is my anguish, no matter how trivial. Let me have it. The thing is, if it’s my anguish, I’m going to feel it whether or not you give me permission to feel it. And if you strip me of my permission, you’re not leaving me without anguish, you’re leaving me still firmly in anguish but now I’m drowning in guilt to boot. Again I say, how is this helpful? I hate it. Just let me feel crappy and tell me you’re sorry I feel crappy, wish me well, and send me on my way.
Should I address here the fact that said person doesn’t even know what I’m overwhelmed by and he’s only assuming it’s trivial? No, I’ll worry about that later. . . .
So, I hate when people do it to me, but I hate it more when people do it to someone else. Why? Because I know it’s an awful, totally unhelpful, minimizing, dehumanizing thing to say and I worry that the recipient doesn’t know that and that he will now go off into the depths of guilt, wounded and weakened by pain, all the more likely to drown in it. And my heart aches for him. I just want to say, “Ugh, your wound, your pain, it sucks. And I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how that hurts.” (Because I’ve never felt his pain, and I’m not him, so I can’t even imagine it.) Oh yeah. And I want to slap the other guy in the head.
Then there are the times when a person does it to herself. She’s struggling, overwhelmed, in some sort of anguish, and she tells herself, “Oh, this is no big deal, Mr. So-and-so, he has real problems.” And she chokes down her tears and packs up her sorrows and tries to carry on. But she still has that heavy trunk of sorrows to carry around. She won’t share it because she thinks it should be light enough to carry on her own. But it clearly weighs her down, so it’s clearly not light enough for her to carry on her own. And that’s OK.
You know what? I think I’m only good for carrying like 40 pounds around anywhere for any length of time. And that’s 40 living pounds, as in the weight of a small child (well, young child in my house, anyway). A dead weight? I probably can’t do 40. My husband? He works out in a gym. Has done so for . . . well I’d say as long as I know him, but I’m not sure he started when he was eleven . . . lets say an even 20 years. He can carry so much weight around that when I ask him “How much weight can you carry?” he has to give me a zillion different possible scenarios to determine a specific answer. “How am I carrying it? Like in my arms? Like a bar across my shoulders and squat it? A person? Am I going up hill or down hill?” etc. etc. etc. I can pick up 40 pounds, tops, under any circumstances. Now I have to get specific for my husband to come up with a range: about 200 pounds, we’ve concluded. (We’ve also concluded he could probably “move” up to 400 lbs. Like on an incline bench pushing up with his legs. Once. It’s been a fun conversation.)
Point is: I can pick up 40 pounds. My husband can pick up 200. Say we come home from the grocery store and in an attempt to get the groceries inside as quickly as possible we both load up both our arms with grocery bags: I with 50 pounds, he with 100. When I stagger my way into the house, my husband is not going to say, “Heh. You think that’s heavy? That’s not heavy. I have twice as much as that in my hands! Stop staggering and get in this house.” No. He’s going to help me get some bags out of my arms because he knows I’m maxing out my strength and my herniated disks in my neck. What matters is not how much he or someone else can carry or is carrying. What matters is the load I’m bearing is hurting my arms and my neck and making me stumble.
If we can see the logic of that (and I hope you can) when we’re talking about physical loads, why can’t we see it when we’re talking about emotional ones? Why do we allow ourselves and others to feel crummy only when we’ve determined the load is heavy enough, not when the person does indeed feel crummy? Why is it a contest? Why do we feel compelled to justify our exhaustion? Why do we feel compelled to minimize someone else’s? Can’t we just feel the weight of what we’re carrying, whatever the mass?
Talking to my frustrated engineer husband just now (while he’s supposed to be finishing up his sermon. It is, after all, Saturday night), took me on a little tangent. But really, it might not be such a tangent after all. It might just be a deepening of my analogy. A deepening best appreciated by the science-minded, but that’s OK. We love them too.
If you (are able,) remember back to your Physics 101, one of the crucial formulae you learned was F=MA. Force equals Mass times Acceleration. The downward force of an object, its weight, is dependent upon not only its mass, but also the acceleration due to gravity in its particular environment. Remember that a particular object has a particular mass, but it will weigh more on earth than it does on the moon due to the moon’s lower acceleration due to gravity. So, my two volumes of Calvin’s Institutes always have the same mass, no matter where they are, but if I put them in my backpack on earth, I will feel them pulling against my shoulders a little. But they’ll simply float away on the moon. Same books, different circumstances; different environment, different impact.
So, I posit (since I’m getting all scientific-y here), it is with life’s travails. What totally bogs one person down is barely a blip on the screen of another. The specifics of the challenge (the mass) is the same, but the conditions and the circumstances (the acceleration due to gravity) are different. Not better or worse, not weaker or stronger, just different. Like all people are different. Consequently, the impact on each person will be different. Again, not better, not worse, just different. What matters most is how the individual person is experiencing the weight (the force) of the challenge.
And our job, as fellow brothers and sisters in faith or simply as fellow humans on this planet, is to meet people where they are, to consider only the weight of their pain or struggle or challenge as it manifests itself in their own planet personal experience, and help them carry it. Our job with ourselves is to stop worrying about how much our problem weighs in someone else’s sphere, and give ourselves permission to feel its weight in our own lives and to ask for help carrying it if we need it.
Sometimes life sucks. And that’s OK. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes the little things take us down, sometimes the big things leave us stronger. Or the big things pummel us to smitherines and the little things are teeny tiny pings. And it’s all OK. As in, it’s all crappy and as crappy as we feel it to be. And if you don’t think so, then kindly leave me alone. And leave him alone. And leave yourself alone. Life is challenging enough without making it a contest.