I was having a conversation with someone recently about a problem they were dealing with. It was a physical problem that was somewhat painful, somewhat annoying and somewhat limiting. The problem wasn’t going to be fatal and it was treatable but right then and there, it was causing the individual to suffer. I did my pastoral thing, listening and encouraging them to talk and doing all the stuff that has become second nature to me over many years of ministry.
But my comfortable professional approach was interrupted by a comment the person made. After telling me about the problem, the person abruptly said something like, “I shouldn’t be complaining about this–there are lots of people worse off than me.” Although I have heard the comment a lot, something about it set me off that day.
It isn’t all that uncommon a idea–we are often encouraged to compare our problems and difficulties with those of others, generally with the idea that if theirs are worse, we should stop complaining. I seem to remember a song from years ago that said something like, “I used to complain about having no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” If someone is suffering more than we are, then we need to stop whining, count our blessings and get on with life.
Sounds good–there is some semi-religious moralizing, some thinly veiled guilt, some covert attempts to foster denial and some social pressure to smile and carry on. What more could be asked of an approach to suffering?
Well, maybe we could ask for a more honest approach to suffering. Comparative suffering is really a terrible approach to suffering. On some levels, my lack of shoes is certainly less serious than someone else’s lack of feet–but my lack of shoes is my problem and my issue and the other person’s lack of feet, tragic as that is, really doesn’t do much to help me deal with my issue. In fact, the comparative suffering approach probably adds to my suffering because not only do I have to deal with my lack of shoes but I also have to deal with my guilt over having feet and therefore not suffering as much as the other guy.
Suffering isn’t really comparative. My stuff is my stuff and while it may or may not be as bad as someone else’s stuff, it is my stuff and I have to deal with it using my resources and my abilities and my support systems. And in the end, I can only really do that by being honest with myself about what I am dealing with and its effects on me.
So, when the person I was talking to suggested that they shouldn’t be complaining about their suffering when so many were worse off, I interrupted the flow of the conversation by suggesting that suffering wasn’t comparative and that what they were dealing was what they were dealing with. There was a pause in the conversation as the person thought about this–and then a very visible and audible change in the their demeanor. It was like they relaxed–they could be open and free about what they were dealing with because they didn’t have to compare it to someone else. They didn’t have to put it on the global suffering scale and forget about it because it didn’t rate enough.
We continued talking and the person talked more about how the problem was affecting them and their family. We also talked about how not having to compare it with others was a relief. They could recognize and accept their suffering for what it was–it was something that was causing them pain and trouble and it was inconvenient and miserable and they had a right to be upset.
The guy with no feet has a tough deal in life and I can appreciate his suffering–but his suffering is his suffering, just as my suffering is my suffering. We each have to deal with what we have–or don’t have. And we deal with it best by dealing with it ourselves, not by trying to place it on some cosmic scale of suffering. I might have feet–but my lack of shoes is still a real problem in my life, one that I need to deal with honestly and freely.
May the peace of God be with you.