Essays

Comparing Suffering

Comparison is the death of joy.

–Mark Twain

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A lot has been said about the potential for suffering when comparing yourself to your friends on Facebook—they seem to be happy, successful, living perfect lives, making you feel pathetic as you muddle through in your usual imperfect way. But there’s also a type of suffering that comes from comparing yourself to people whose pain is different from yours. This suffering strikes people with depression extra hard, leading us to minimize what’s going on for us, to deny our pain. How many of you have ever said, “Yeah, I’m feeling pretty sad, but you know, it’s not like I’m a refugee, someone with real reasons to struggle.”

Well let me say clearly to you, now, that your pain is real. You are allowed to feel it, and you should not add to it by feeling “guilty” or like you don’t “deserve” to hurt. You cannot control your feelings, any more than you can control when you have to sneeze. And you speaking your feelings, acknowledging them, does not take anything from refugees, victims of racism, survivors of gun violence, or anyone else. Your feelings matter.

All of which is what I wish the therapist I went to recently had said when I uttered exactly the sentence that ends the first paragraph here, through tears. Instead, she said, “Well, your feelings are a big deal to you.”

And then, at the end of the first and only session I had with her, she asked how I felt after telling her about my problems. I said, “Like a whiner.” She said, “Oh, that’s too bad.”

No doubt this approach works for some people. No doubt this therapist did not consider that I would interpret these utterances as “You really are self-absorbed and selfish, aren’t you?” and “Well, maybe you are a whiner.” Confirmation of my worthlessness, that horrible whispering of Depression.

The rest of that day was bad. I kept bursting into tears. I didn’t eat. I didn’t move from the couch.

But the next day, I felt better than I expected. Not so beaten down. No, I wasn’t happy—I was mad. And being mad felt good. Because I knew she had said the wrong thing. I knew because I’d heard my own friends and former students saying the same bullshit about their pain being “no big deal,” and I knew to tell them that comparing suffering is pointless, meaningless. And fair or not, it felt so good to have someone to be angry at besides myself. For once I wasn’t the stupid one, stupid for feeling depressed and worthless despite the reassurances of my loved ones, stupid for failing at my career, stupid for not being able to just snap out of it. She was.

Because, my friends, empathy, like love, is not a finite resource. It does not need to be hoarded, and doled out only to the deserving. Who would judge that, anyway? You can absolutely feel empathy for your friend who lost her keys and therefore missed a day of work, AND for a civilian in the Middle East who lost his leg in a bombing. In fact, if you are depressed, chances are that all types of suffering wound you; watching the news is a painful experience, and you cannot stop replaying the times in your life when you witnessed or caused pain to another.

The answer to all this pain is not to shut off your empathy, nor to let the judging and shaming elements of our culture persuade you to be like them. The answer is to give that same empathy to yourself. To answer your own sad voice—the one that feels like a whiner—with the same compassion you would offer to someone else’s sadness. We can bear the suffering of the world, even when it seems overwhelming. Compassion and empathy make it possible. It’s also just possible that compassion—lovingkindness, connectedness—is the only meaning there is in suffering. hand-447040_1920

Not that I know for sure that there is meaning in anything. I just hope. And I believe if we’re seeking meaning, making meaning, we’ll get there in our usual messy, complicated, mysterious, imperfect way.

19 replies »

  1. How did you guess? That is exactly how I feel – the guilt that I have it really easy compared to the serious, life-threatening problems that others have in this world. And everything hurts me, to the point where I can barely watch the news anymore. Thank you. This was an excellent article, made me realise I am not alone in this.

  2. Yesterday on my way home by bus I was thinking about reality, and how sad and horrible it can be, how unfair it can be. And that sure causes a lot of suffering. When I talk to my grandmother she tells me: “Life is hard”. And I am 20 years old, what do I know about life? But yesterday, in the bus, it seemed to me that yes life IS hard, but it’s also beautiful, happy, horrible, enfuriating, sad, funny. It’s all of this things combined, that’s the way it is – no more sad than beautiful, no more ugly than happy. And I thought to myself, maybe I just have to accept that and try my best every day to be as positive as I can, as happy as I can, but aknowledging that THAT is not all life is. There will be sad moments, horrible moments. And that’s just the way it is.

  3. This is so true. Am sure many would tell me to stop feeling too compassionate to people since it might make my depression. But this advice also works real great. Thank you

  4. Reblogged this on whatevertheyaint and commented:
    I can relate to feeling “guilty” for feeling. However, this blog post is encouraging in that it lets one know that it’s ok to be both empathetic to others and to acknowledge and give ourselves that same caring and nurturing.

  5. Hi there, beautiful post! And for the record, I’m one of those that always compare my bummer feelings to others. If I’m down in the dumps, I’ll say, “Well, there are others who are in worse circumstances” in other words, I’m telling myself to be quiet and stop the whining. I’ve discovered swallowing my own crap, my way to ignore it, does not help in the least. It just comes up again, or it builds and builds on top of all the other stuff. Thank you very much for writing such a truthful, and inspiring post. Keep up the good work. It’s unbelievable really, how many people in this world deal with depression on a daily basis, and it’s something that really does need to be adressed. Take care, and good luck. 🙂

  6. Yep, I do that as well:compare how I feel to others and try to downplay my own feelings. I never really thought of it as trying to deny my own feelings, just that I was trying to see that it could be worse.

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