Happy summer Monday, mochaccinos!
Today’s meditation centers around the validation- or invalidation, as it may be- of struggle. I know; bright and happy subject to start the week off on, huh? But the sheer prevalence of this topic has convinced me that it must be addressed.
Like me, my dearest ones have led incredibly blessed lives. They “want for nothing” (though the grammatical accuracy of that phrase still puzzles me). On the occasion that their lives take a tumultuous– if momentary– turn, they do a funny thing: they invalidate their struggle by way of comparison. If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard one of them utter the following statements, I would have many pennies. It goes something along the lines of,
“I know that there are people that have it so much worse than I do and I really shouldn’t be complaining, but….”
“Here’s all the things that are hugely upsetting in my life right now, even though I know I’m really lucky and that person’s mom just died so it’s totally fine, forget everything I just said.”
Finally, after the hundred and twelfth time hearing phrases akin to those above, I decided to hunker down and figure out once and for all the root of these pain-diminishing excuse-me-please-for-venting sentences. And then it hit me– the origin of this habit comes most obviously from being denizens of the first-world world.
We, like every other human being with operational cognition experience pain, upset, and feelings of inner conflict. Yet we have an overarching awareness of how terribly fortunate we are to be living in such a technologically advanced, abundant, and indulgent culture. And we have an equal awareness of the stark contrast that exists in our times– a knowledge of people around the globe who are suffering, squandering, in poverty, destitution, people who are dirty, starving, ailing. People who want for everything.
And so we express our pain, and then we backtrack on it; we so fear sounding spoiled or ungrateful.
Just as often as I hear such statements do I counter them with a catch-phrase of my own. “Everything is relative.”
While I in no way lay claim to these syllables, I have, somehow and quite accidentally it seems, become an ardent proponent of them. I repeat those words time and time again when people confide in me about their unique struggles and then insert the obligatory canceling out of relevance lest they sound hideously Veruka Salt-esque. Without fail, I fervently dismiss their dismissal– sometimes even cut them off mid-sentence, throwing out their “but other people have it way worse” as horseradish and reciting my standby, “everything is relative.”
That there are people in the universe dealing with horrific struggles is a certainty as sure as the sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west. That your pain and struggle is real is a nonnegotiable. There is no comparing pain to pain. It just doesn’t compute; like pineapples and honeydew, they are just different fruit.
I believe the only allowable comparison of struggle is to your own– that is, in each person’s life, there is a standard of struggle that has been set. The worst time in your life when your dad passed away and you got divorced and your daughter told you she hated you– that was your lowest point, and that sets the bar for struggle in your life. Whatever pain comes afterwards may only be measured in comparison to that personal standard, never to the pain and suffering of the whole world.
Let’s look at this from another angle: your friend has had an exceptionally easy, bruise-free life. Her family is functional and fun, her body is fit and covetable, her mind is sharp. We’ll call her Lucy. And Lucy’s had it pretty good. Until our darling Lucy gets rejected from Stanford. And then poor little Lucy is devastated. She keels over in heartache, cries big salty tears day after day for three weeks straight, says her hopes and dreams and have squashed.
Okay, so maybe that’s an extreme portrait but I’m trying to make a point here. That is, no one can blame Lucy for being so upset. Her pain bar has been set so low– perhaps as a seven-year-old she stubbed her big toe– that in her biography, this pain is real. This hurts her deeply because she has never been hurt like this before.
And while there is of course a line at which acknowledging strife wallows into the realm of self-pity, I would say:
Your pain is real.
Your pain is your own and no one else can comprehend it, just as you can never fully understand another’s.
In order to vent about your struggle without a guilty conscious count your blessings daily.
Grant others the same rights to express their struggle.
And remember: everything is relative.
Image credit: Beulah