I didn’t always understand this essential fact. I had a tough childhood and adolescence; my mom dying while I was fairly young was just the tip of the iceberg. It was easy to compare myself to others and minimize their problems in my head. “So his parents divorced years ago. That’s not a big deal. Why can’t he just get over it?” I know, I know, I wince to recall it. It’s embarrassing, and my only comfort is that at least I don’t remember usually saying such things out loud. Everyone is deserving of compassion for the hardships in their lives, and problems hit different people in different ways. What may be, for one person, a relatively insignificant event, may be a life-changing catastrophe for someone else.
And honestly, even if it were a competition for who has the worst life, why would you ever want to win such a contest?
Speaking as someone who, for many years, had “worse” problems than many of those around me, I never wanted to shut people down. (Perhaps this is why I had the minimal wisdom to try to keep my mouth shut during my occasional uncharitable moments.) I rarely discussed most of my problems, partly because I dreaded the initial reaction and partly because I didn’t want my experiences to change the way people related to me. I was already isolated enough; I didn’t want further barriers between me and the rest of the world. I wanted whatever normalcy I could get.
It’s a tricky business, because when we know someone is struggling with major problems, we don’t want to burden them with our own concerns, which in comparison seem to middle away into insignificance. But when we aren’t honest about what’s going on with us, when we choose to protect someone instead of share with them, what we’re really doing is pushing them away.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be tactful and considerate. If a friend is retching in the toilet, that probably isn’t a great time to start bemoaning an inability to find the perfect juice squeezer. Someone who is ill might very well lack the energy to do certain activities with you. And sometimes there are subjects better left alone for a while. Raving about an amazing romantic relationship to someone who is going through a bitter divorce? Well, maybe not so much. But if you talk to that same friend about problems with your aging parents, it might not burden them so much as build the mutual connection between you. It may give your friend a break from dwelling on her own problems. It may make her feel less alone. Or she may tell you it’s not a good time to talk, and that’s okay too.
In my experience, everyone has problems, even those people who look like they have perfect lives. We all have bad days mixed in with the good, we all have setbacks, we all make mistakes, and we all have to live with the hard parts of being human. But ideally the people with whom we move through life can make the hard parts more bearable and the good times sweeter.
What do you think? Do you find yourself comparing problems? If someone has a really big problem, does that make you feel that you can’t speak freely to them?