Comparing Suffering Harms Everyone

Painting of man thinking about why we keep comparing suffering
Why do we do this?

I’m not trying to bring you down.

But, has anyone ever told you you haven’t suffered? Dismissed your problems? Ignored your sadness and told you you’re “fine.”

We have a habit of comparing suffering.

And there are problems with saying “you’ve suffered” and “you haven’t.” And it gets complicated quickly.

I believe that acknowledging what you’ve been through can be empowering. And I also believe that dismissing a person trying to express their suffering can do enormous damage.

Here's a little dialogue, tell me if it sounds familiar:

“You think you have it bad?

With all the things you have and …. Try being…

You need to get a perspective. You don’t have real problems.”

The reaction:

“But, I am in pain. I guess it’s not enough to count. I guess I shouldn’t feel bad. I guess this pain is a luxury.

If I want people to believe me, I should suffer more. I’ll wish for more suffering. More tangible suffering, suffering people can see.

How disgusting it is for me of all people to be feeling this bad. I’ll dismiss it and bury it. I’ll do that until my feelings fall in line. Then I’ll finally feel how I should feel. My emotions will fit within the framework of my life.”

I thought like this once. Maybe it was an appropriate reaction. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, there was something wrong.

Let’s See Who’s Suffered Most

Let’s assume for a second that human suffering is objective and quantifiable. We’ll say that the Suffering Committee™ has defined decapains as the units for measuring suffering. They determine who has real problems in the world, and who should stop complaining. It’s time for them to judge.

Here are the struggle profiles of three individuals:

  1. Mark is beginning to manifest signs of PTSD from bullying in his childhood. He’s having flashbacks, night terrors, and he’s begun alienating himself from his loved ones.
  2. Carol is a high-functioning alcoholic. She is under massive pressure working as an attorney at her law firm. She has begun harming herself to cope.
  3. Carl lives in a poor neighborhood. He lives with the constant stress of being attacked or mugged. He experiences nightly insomnia.

All individuals are having suicidal thoughts.

The Committee straightens out their papers. Here are their conclusions:

1. Mark seems well off financially. He should have stood up to his bullies when he was a kid. Night terrors would be a nuisance, but overall, it seems like he should get over it.

Consensus: 23 decapains (Any score under 50 needs to stop complaining).

2. They see that Carol is obviously wealthy. One of the board members struggled with alcoholism, making him more sympathetic to her. Self-harm is just a cry for attention though.

Consensus: 39 decapains

3. One of the board members grew up poor, so he sympathized with Carl. The rest of the committee, however, did not, so they wonder why he doesn’t just move away. But the worst part is, he has no money. What a pity.

Consensus: 64 decapains

Ok. That’s enough.

What can we conclude about comparing suffering from this god-awful organization?

It’s clear that every judgment was made from relative experience and subjective understanding. If the board members took the time to really know these people, their committee would no longer exist.

Human suffering is as exotic and diverse as plant species in the Amazon. I don’t say that to be bleak. It’s diverse in the sense that personalities and individual experiences are diverse. And it’s as subjective as dreams and ambitions. Suffering can find its way in, even for the “luckiest” among us.

So, if you ever share your pain with someone, and they dismiss what you say with, “it’s not that bad”, remember that if your pain is great enough to make you prefer dying to living, then yes, something is clearly and abundantly that bad.

Especially with mental conditions, which is the kind of pain that is tough to see, you don’t know, until you know. And I do believe it’s possible for someone on the outside looking in, to know.

They just need to take the time to listen.

The Nuances of Comparing Suffering

1). Honoring your suffering (acknowledging your pain as distinct, real, and uniquely yours) is not making excuses or victimizing yourself. It is taking stock of what you’ve been through, and not letting it stop you from moving forward.

2). If a man whines over the wait time on his Five Guys burger while across the world a child starves, I would say this man is not being honest with himself. This honesty is required if you want to recognize your actual struggles.

3). Tough love is often necessary and can be the best thing for a person. However, this is not the case when someone is gazing down from the edge of a bridge. That person needs compassion more than anything.

4). Counting your blessings is useful and important. You develop a greater understanding of yourself and the human condition through recognizing what others have been through. Acknowledging what you have, and seeing what others don’t have, should not lead to guilt. It should lead to gratitude, and meaningful action.

5). Does experiencing suffering or misfortune make a person special? No. But if we understood the universal nature of struggle, we would not reject someone when they need to be heard.

6). A person must be heard when they’re suffering. But it is also true that how they deal with suffering is ultimately their responsibility. Real compassion does not always look like directly providing help. Compassion can be letting people stand on their own.

The crosses you’ve had to bear in your life are yours alone. Even if the pain only existed in your mind, why should that be a reason to dismiss it?

Don’t take it to heart if someone tells you you haven’t suffered when you know you have. If others refuse to believe you, then maybe you’re the only person who needs to understand.

Disowning what you have been through could be disowning the strongest part of yourself. If that part doesn’t count, then a part of you doesn’t count.

Who deserves to say they’ve suffered?

People who’ve suffered. And there is nothing more to say.