Comparison is the death of joy.
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.
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.