A Comparison that Kills

grief comparison

A Comparison that Kills by Robynn

I suppose there are two types of people when it comes to pain: those who exaggerate their woes and wounds and those who downplay them. Although I’m a self-proclaimed wimp* and my pain tolerance is low I tend to be one of the ones that sweeps her own pain away. I’m not talking about the pain that comes when I stub my toe, or when I have a headache, or a sore knee. I’m rarely quiet about those types of pains. The pain I tend to minimize is the stubbed spirit, the heartache, and the sore soul.

Somewhere along the line I learned to compare my pain to the hurts of others and mine always came out lower, lesser. I’ve never broken a bone, I’ve never been molested. I had parents who loved me. I was always fed and watered. Often when I hear the sorrows of others I double over, my mercy muscles contort, my heart breaks. Suddenly my own pain seems unimportant and I set it aside. I enter fully into the hurts of others and I ignore my own.

This likely was born in me, in part, as a result of being raised in Pakistan. Pakistan, like all of her South Asian neighbours, has people at both sides of the economic index: the very rich and the very poor. In the area where we lived we were surrounded by the plight of the poor. Their suffering was unimaginable. Beggars approached with missing limbs, with oozing wounds, with broken babies. Misery was immediately apparent. We saw their makeshift shacks everywhere we went. Plastic sheets tacked over cardboard and broken down crates. Cloth stretched over doorways, children playing in the dirt. These were their homes. It was impossible to come to grips with it all.

We knew people trapped by their employers. Brick makers who owed money to the boss for their housing, or to the agent who found them the job, their wages garnished with high fees and charges and made up taxes. They were slaves. They were stuck in their poverty. Sudden sickness, or school fees for their children meant borrowing more money from the owner of the brick factory with exorbitant interest rates, which further pushed them deeper into entrapment.  The poor lived with the drama of broken relationships, serious sicknesses, horrific tragedies all the time.

And this was the backdrop of my childhood.

Our lives were obviously vastly different to the lives of those around us. We had money for shoes. We had food. We had access to medical help. Although our family had known a degree of poverty, my memories of it were scant, and the poverty we had experienced wasn’t nearly as extreme. My parents always had the safety net of family and community and church and government. The law was enforced and we were protected from exploitation. We always had hope and dreams. We had options.

Even now comparing and contrasting my pain against the pains of those around me comes naturally. I hear the stories of heartache and betrayal, of sickness, of a child abused, of a love misused and I silence my own soul’s screams, I roll up my sleeves and I enter into the presenting problems of the person in front of me with sincerity and with the secret belief that this is the good and right response. After all I have a husband who is kind, children who are making good choices. We are healthy. We have food to eat. I’m perpetually tempted to minimize my own pain. This is “taking up my cross.” This is ministry. This is good. And I’ll be fine.

A gentle counselor once used this illustration to highlight how skewed my thinking was. Suppose there is an accident on the highway. Perhaps a large truck has crossed the center line and run into a car. Perhaps two or three cars are involved. Perhaps a motorcycle plows into another person. It’s a messy moment on the roadway. The ambulance comes. When the medical people are evaluating who’s been hurt and who’s okay, who needs to go on to the hospital and who’s fine, they don’t say to the person hit by the motorcycle, “You were only hit by a motorcycle. Shake it off. You’re going to be fine. See that other person on the stretcher. They were hit by the large truck. They have a right to be in pain. You, however, you need to buck up!” Only a calloused uncaring person would ever say that to a victim lying by the side of the road. That’s not how triage works. Each person is kindly cared for. Each person is checked for injuries and wounds. Each person matters. Each person’s pain is valid.

Even now, and this might seem completely insensitive to say, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal, it’s easy to think our own agonies are minimal. When we think about the ravaged and raw week Baltimoreans have had it’s tempting to brush off our own problems. And on many levels that’s true. Our houses are still standing. The ground beneath our feet is stable. Our communities are calm and quiet. But comparing our pain with their pain doesn’t do anything to alleviate the distress of the displaced and devastated Nepali or to comfort the enraged and confused citizen of Baltimore. Downplaying my own sorrow doesn’t somehow mysteriously fuel compassion for those still shaken from the ongoing aftershocks—both literal and metaphoric.

Trust me, it doesn’t do any good to ignore your own personal pain. You may have only been hit by a motorcycle…but you’ve been hit nonetheless and you’re hurting. Your pain matters.

I think it’s time to attend to our own souls. It’s time to notice the places we hurt, the spots that are still tender. Where do the deep emotions still lurk? Where do we still grieve? Where are the places we’ve been so terribly disappointed and betrayed? Sit quietly and be curious about your own soul. Be kind to you where you still hurt. Look after your self. Don’t be ashamed to seek treatment –a friend, a counselor, a doctor–where necessary.

Looking inward with gentleness and tender inquiry allows us to better connect with others in pain. Compassion comes from the heart that has honestly allowed itself to hurt. Only then can we remember what it feels like to be in pain. Remembering that, we can see the images on the television screen and our emotional response to the earth shattering, community shaking devastations will come from honest places. We can look in the eyes of anguished strangers and we can relate. We too have tasted the bitterness of gripping grief. We too have experienced heartache and despondency. Vulnerable hearts, still somewhat raw, can meet those victims of this broken world, and say with sincerity, “ I know what it feels like to hurt. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

As long as we live with sealed off spaces in our own selves our connecting to others in pain will be superficial and coldly professional. At the very best, that’s where pity is born. And there’s a reason the word pity is so pitiful. It lacks depth and authenticity.

It’s time to stop minimizing our own grief, our own sadness, our own misery. Comparing our own pain to the pains of others serves only to squish our own souls and kill the potential for connection in community. Honestly admitting our emotions makes us real people. Real people have the capacity to reach out to other really hurting people.  The sparks of empathy are fanned in these mysterious moments when my pain greets your pain.

Certainly it involves risk. I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact it’s scary to admit we hurt. Vulnerability invites vulnerability. There are others waiting to meet us there–others who’ve also been in pain, others who will weep with us when we weep. The Man of sorrows himself, is acquainted with the deepest of griefs. He welcomes our honest confessions. He sees our hurts. He hears our hearts. They matter to him. 

What about you? Do you tend to minimize your pain, instead of admitting it and healing, growing in your ability to offer compassion to others?

*A physical or emotional weakling; someone who lacks courage. It is meant as a mild insult –Urban Dictionary