It’s become a pissing contest, particularly in American society, of who’s suffered more, of who’s endured the most trauma and lived to tell the tale. How often do we feel the spoken and unspoken question asked, “Who are you to suffer–who are you to cry trauma or claim hardship–when there’s x y and z happening in the world?” It surfaces everywhere from black and white race relations to the reciprocal attitudes of the over- and under- weight, and even sometimes from within. Like sympathy and compassion and understanding are somehow limited resources and if they’re gobbled up by those we deem more privileged there won’t be any left for those who “need it most.”
There’s some false sense of security we must get from holding onto bitterness and defending the supremacy of our victimhood by dismissing our fellow human’s hardships as irrelevant or “not that big a deal.” Our egos seem to take great pride in diminishing the battles of those around us to make ours seem larger, more meaningful and more tragic.
But here’s the thing:
Trauma can be defined as anything that overwhelms someone’s ability to cope, and so inherently it possesses an element of subjectivity. Who’s to decide what someone’s ability to cope is or should be?
The sufferer, that’s who, and no one else.
There is no need to compare one’s suffering to another, but because no two human beings’ coping mechanisms are the same, you couldn’t accurately do so even if you tried. And please remember that even having been in a similar situation as another, never means we fully understand the immensity of what it is to be them.
The validity of suffering (if you feel it absolutely necessary to question that of another) hinges on this coping ability, so when we belittle the ex-child star’s battle with substance abuse and the millionaire divorced housewife’s heartbreak and money woes simply because there are children starving in the undeveloped world, we’re missing the point.
If a young woman survives mass genocide and genital mutilation and starvation and rape in a third world country and goes on to build a successful business with a beautiful loving family, but another who never missed a meal and grew up sheltered by suburbia succumbs to a dark hole of depression so deep she can’t see out (I’m being a extreme here to illustrate a point–the vast majority of us of course fall somewhere in the middle), the only inference we can make is that the former’s ability to cope was much more developed. We should be commending the survivors, giving the first woman a platform to share her insight with those less fortunate (my how the tables have turned–once a victim, not always a victim), and then turning our attention to the second and, without an ounce of superiority, pity or judgment, helping her back to her feet. Maybe not having had to endure physical hardship or life-threatening experiences growing up left this woman ill equipped to deal with a business gone bankrupt or a husband’s unfaithfulness in a way someone more refined by dangerous circumstances could never understand.
Maybe with this realization we can find a bit of admiration for the will to live of those who’ve risen or are fighting to rise above suffering of “great” magnitude and compassion for those who haven’t been able to clear the “smaller” hurdles. Better yet, maybe we can kick the need to size-up heartache all together.
My final question for you is this:
Can we maybe learn to suffer “differently” without having to suffer “more,” so that we can navigate this thing called life together?