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Posts Tagged ‘community’

Here is a beautiful thing.

In the midst of stress, there is connection. In the midst of sorrow, there is laughter. In the midst of fatigue, there is anticipation. In the midst of loss, there is appreciation. In the midst of chaos, there is the act of kindness that matters because of its mere existence.

In articles about dealing with stress, the idea of gratitude is repeated over and over again. Whether or not it is an active strategy, I find that gratitude and its cousin appreciation bubble up so easily these days. Perhaps because I need more help I have more to be grateful for. Or perhaps the contrast makes my appreciation keener. Or maybe I’m always this way and I just don’t usually pay as much attention. It is hard to know.

I stood in the grass at Shoreline Amphitheatre this weekend, my vest zipped up against the cool evening air. I watched Passion Pit play their song “Take a Walk,” and I was so happy to be there. I watched a friend of mine win the Andre Norton Award on Saturday night, and in the middle of tearing up, I was so happy to be there. I ate a late evening snack at my favorite local crepe place with a group of friends old and new, and I was so happy to be there.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

A friend told me this weekend about a friend of hers who read my blog post about stress last week. Apparently it had a big impact, being the right post at the right time for this friend, who has been going through a lot herself recently, but she was embarrassed to write and tell me. I laughed and said, “I was embarrassed to write that post too.” I am so happy I decided to write something that mattered to someone.

I am so happy that so many of you have reached out to offer support and tell me it’s totally fine to spend some time staring at trees. And I completely agree. Staring at trees can be pretty great. So can eating pie and reading fluffy novels and petting little dogs and wearing a fantastic dress.

I am so happy to be here right now.

I am always looking for reasons to be happy, and I found so many of them this weekend. And perhaps that’s what I feel the most grateful for: my ability to find those reasons, and your willingness to create those reasons with me.

Thank you.

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Homes of the Heart

I drove down to Santa Cruz with my dog this weekend. I’m not sure when I had been there last, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was for my birthday last year, which would mean a whopping fifteen months between visits. I felt lighter the minute my car was in the midst of the pine trees that line Highway 17, and by the time I’d reached my favorite view of the ocean, the entire world felt like a better place.

The egregious cute dog picture here.

This got me thinking about the homes of my heart. I have two places I’ve lived in the past that have the same effect on me. I feel happier thinking about them, and when I am actually physically present within them, I feel this strong sense of homecoming. Of rightness. One of them is Santa Cruz, and the other one is London.

That’s not to say that Silicon Valley, where I live now, isn’t my home. I know a lot of people here and have some fabulous friends close enough to see often. I really like the park near my house. I know my way around. I know where to obtain goods and services. I have spent several years of my life here. But it isn’t my heart’s home. I don’t feel joy from simply living here. I feel grateful for the mild weather, but that’s not really the same thing as joy.

Now Santa Cruz, I can tell you what makes it special (even though I do not go down there anywhere near often enough). London, I can talk on and on about why I love it. I wish more people would do that, actually: give me the opportunity for a long London monologue. If we are together and you want to make me happy, bring up London, be ready to listen patiently, and we’ll be all set. But Silicon Valley, well. If you want to be involved with a tech start-up, this is the place to be.

However, I am NOT involved in a tech start-up. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would be fascinating. But it’s not what I’m doing right now.)

What effect does it have, I’ve been wondering, when you spend so many years not living in one of your heart’s homes? I’ve been here for eleven years this winter, and even the first year, when I lived in San Francisco proper, was not what I’d call an unqualified success (although that might be related to the neighborhood I chose to live in). It must happen to a lot of people, living in a place because of work or family or finances or because that’s just how it worked out, even though it doesn’t resonate with them. Maybe it doesn’t really matter. Your friends and communities are probably more important in the grand scheme of things than your geographical location.

And yet, here in Santa Cruz, I look so much like ME.

But I miss looking out my bedroom window at redwood trees. I miss walking by the ocean. I miss London’s parks and the indifferent sandwiches I’d eat on the omnipresent benches, and I miss taking the Tube down to the Tate Modern on a Sunday afternoon. I miss rambling on the Heath and getting lost beforehand and afterwards, and I miss carrying my A to Zed everywhere I went (although now, I suppose, cell phones have replaced A to Zeds). I miss the late night excursions to the physics building’s merry-go-round and the cheap music concerts and the two pound coins and the inevitable pub and the scarf shops.

I could go back, I suppose, but I think there’s an element to heart’s homes that is related to time and context. I don’t think we can simply return to living in our heart’s homes whenever we feel like it. They might no longer fit exactly right. Sometimes we may be lucky and another right time to live there may come along. Other times we have to discover new ones instead.

Where are your heart’s homes?

 

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One of the traits I mentioned last week that is connected with resilience is perspective, and part of perspective is the ability to find or create meaning. In a conversation about resilience, that meaning is most often crafted around circumstances of difficulty, but really humans are looking everywhere for meaning all the time.

Photo by Patrick Hoesly

James Altucher gives a great example of this in his latest Q&A post, in which someone asks him whether their sadness will ever go away. James’s answer, especially the fourth point of it, is a textbook example of emotional resilience by creating meaning: “When I feel sad… the universe will grieve but then rejoice because it’s learning so much. Then I can rejoice because every pain, every sadness, every moment, is ME, the universe manifest, learning something new.” He believes that every moment of his life is a learning experience for the universe, and therefore his life is infused with meaning. And this helps him deal with feelings of sadness.

A few days after I read this Q&A, I read Karawynn Long’s latest post, “How American culture is causing widespread misery.” She talks about the correlation between a shift in American culture and increasing rates of depression, and offers some suggestions as to what we individually can do about this. It’s really fascinating, especially this part: “As our culture shifted to exalt the benefits of personal choice and individual success, Seligman explains, we were also losing confidence in the larger constructs of society. Previously, he says, Americans lived in “a context of meaning and hope.” When we encountered failure, we could take reassurance from something larger than ourselves: “a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that transcends our lives.” But as Carter noted, in the middle of the twentieth century that reassurance began to disintegrate.”

So with an increasing distrust in government, along with declines in active religious faith and more closely knit (and often geographically close) families, Americans suffered from more depression. In other words, with loss of meaning came decreased emotional resilience.

Of course, we can, and do, find meaning elsewhere, whether or not we believe in God or our families or the government. Personally, I have found a great deal of meaning in teaching, particularly children and teens, and while I’m not teaching at present, I suspect I’ll do it again at some point in the future. I find meaning in my writing, both my fiction (fiction is inherently about creating meaning) and on this blog. I find meaning through the communities I am part of, in the relationships I have formed, and in self transformation. I find meaning through learning more about the world and universe around me, and through shifting perspectives to remember how small I really am, both in scales of size and time.

What we are fighting against is a sense of futility, the thought that nothing we do matters or makes a difference, the urge to coast or settle or fall into a rut. Instead we believe in the butterfly effect. We believe our choices matter, whether that be the choice to recycle that piece of paper or to smile at the clerk at the grocery store or to give a significant amount of money to a charity or Kickstarter. We create meaning by being mindful about the cause and effect of what we do every day.

How do you create meaning in your life?

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It’s that time again! Birthday time! My birthday is tomorrow, but I am celebrating all week. Why? Because I can, that’s why. And because I’m happy to be alive. And because I keep thinking of things to do that sound like excellent birthday-related activities. Like playing an epic game of Battlestar Galactica this past weekend, for example. And visiting Ghirardelli Square. And going to a bookstore (any reason is a good reason to do THAT!)

Last year I wrote about Five Happy Things for my birthday, and I think that’s an excellent tradition, so I’m going to do it again.

1. The Academy of Forgetting. Flawed it might be, but it’s also the best and most ambitious thing I’ve ever written. I’m in the middle of an exciting (and at times turbulent) romance with it, and it reminds me of all the best parts of being a writer.

2. The Writing Community. When I went up to Seattle at the last minute this spring, I sent out an e-mail telling local writers I was going to be in town. I expected to spend most of the trip by myself; maybe a couple of people would be able to get together, I told myself. Instead, I got to see so many writer friends, it blew me away. People who went out of their way to spend time with me, help me (especially with the buses), and show me cool aspects of Seattle (the Underground Tour, the Theo Chocolate Factory, the nightlife, the food). And that’s when it hit me down deep: this is what community is. And I am a part of it. How amazing is that?

3. Food. I love food. I was raised on a bland and narrow diet, and ever since I went away to college, I’ve been on a journey of discovery. I am so happy there are spices! And onions! And different types of cuisines from different countries! Heirloom tomatoes exist, how exciting is that! And beets, and baked sweet potatoes, and cherries, and gnocchi, and sushi, and Ethiopian food, and curries, and white hot chocolate, and… You get the picture.

4. My bathtub. My bathtub is a proper big bathtub, like all bathtubs are meant to be. It also has jets, but I never use them. What I like about my bathtub is that I don’t have to bend my knees to fit in it, and I can be submerged in hot water from my neck to my toes. Sheer bliss.

5. Being able to set my own sleep schedule. I do not like going to bed. However, I do like to sleep and feel well rested. Do you see the inherent quandary? Happily I am able to set my own hours, and therefore I am able to stay up late and still get eight hours of sleep. This is a wonderful thing, and I appreciate it on a pretty much daily basis.

I will leave you all with the adorableness that is Nala. This is maybe my favorite photo of her.

You can see some Jack Russell attitude here. Classic Nala.

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I’ve been somewhat injured the last week or two, so I’ve had some extra time on my hands. So I decided to poke around Kickstarter and see some of the awesome projects artists have in the works.

In case anyone doesn’t know, Kickstarter is a funding platform in which artists put up projects and how much funding they wish to receive, and then their fans and the interested public can pledge money towards those projects, usually for nifty rewards like art, books, tickets to live performances and screenings, etc.

What’s exciting about Kickstarter is it gives artists a viable alternative to get their amazing work out into the world while getting paid for it. Many creative projects require money up front in order to become realities, and Kickstarter allows the artist to get paid directly from their fans instead of finding corporate backing. It definitely works best when an artist already has an established fan base who can both support them financially and spread the word. For writers, a successful Kickstarter mimics the advance system of traditional publishing while allowing the writer to retain complete creative control. Which is all-around awesome sauce.

Here are some of the Kickstarters I decided to back last week:

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, by Anita Sarkeesian

I’ve been watching all of Anita’s videos ever since she explained to me, complete with relevant examples, what the Bechdel test was. Now she’s taking on the portrayal of women in video games with a lengthy new series. I couldn’t resist backing this project, because this video series NEEDS to exist.

Fireside Magazine Issue Two, by Brian White

This looks like a promising new fiction magazine, with a lot of speculative heavy hitters in the line-up for the next couple of issues. But really I was sold by the opportunity to be drawn by my friend Galen Dara, who is an amazingly talented artist.

Amanda Palmer: the New Record, Art Book, and Tour, by Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is in the process of revolutionizing the way musicians can interact with their fanbase and make a living while doing awesome things. How could I not want to be a part of this? Also, art books are cool.

Crossed Genres Publications, by Bart Lieb

I have a special place in my heart for Crossed Genres. While they weren’t my first sale, they were the first publication who ran one of my stories. Their Kickstarter has been so successful, they are now going to bring the magazine back (it folded recently), and they also have a few very interesting anthologies scheduled for publication in 2013.

I’m Fine, Thanks, by Crank Tank Studios

To make this independent documentary, the filmmakers toured the country and conducted lots of interviews. Their topic? Complacency and the pull to follow a pre-approved script instead of creating your own unique and individual path through life. Can you think of any subject of a documentary that fits in more with the spirit of this blog? Because I can’t. I am so excited a movie like this exists, and I can’t wait to watch it.

I can’t cover all the worthy Kickstarter projects out there in one blog post, so please help me out. What projects have you supported recently? What other cool things are artists out there doing?

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My husband was telling me about a friend of his who is a good listener. “But I think she’s the one who needs emotional support right now,” he told me.

So we are going to be revisiting a topic I’ve talked about before, problem comparing, because obviously one time was not enough.

Just because your friend has problems does not mean you can’t talk about your own problems. Even if your friend has really big problems. Keep the following in mind:

1. Your friend may have more times during which they can’t listen to you. If they’re fully in crisis mode, right in the middle of dealing with their problem, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional, they probably can’t be there for you right this minute. However, unless there’s a problem with codependence in your friendship (and if there is, that’s a whole separate issue), they will tell you if now isn’t a good time. And if it’s not a good time, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a better time in the future.

2. Your friend may not be able to track you as well. Meaning, they may not have the bandwidth to check up on you, make sure you’re doing okay, send you texts and invitations, and come to you to see if you need anything. That doesn’t mean that if you go to them, they won’t be able to listen.

3. Your friend might find it a welcome break to hear about someone else’s problems for a change. Distraction can be very helpful in certain circumstances. They might also feel better knowing they’ve been able to be supportive to a good friend.


The other aspect of this issue I’ve noticed lately is how invalidated some people feel when their problem isn’t the one getting the full spotlight. It’s as if there’s some kind of suffering quota that they’re afraid is going to be filled up before it’s their turn.

Let me help you out. Everyone suffers. Every single person. And everyone deserves compassion for the suffering they face. It doesn’t matter if your suffering is different than mine, or worse than mine, or not as bad as mine. You still deserve compassion because suffering is hard for everyone.

But when we use our own personal suffering as an excuse to shut down conversations about institutionalized suffering, we are becoming so caught up in our own heads that we are not showing compassion to others. I see this kind of thought process again and again in conversations about race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. Just because we are talking about these issues, just because there is lots of statistical evidence that institutionalized injustice exists, does not mean your own personal suffering does not also exist. But not every conversation has to be about you. Sometimes we need to talk about suffering that affects wide swathes of people, even though you are not one of those people.

Don’t worry. The suffering quota won’t be filled up any time soon.

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People like to find a scapegoat.

Recent articles link the rise of loneliness in modern society with the use of social media, and although I have explored the idea before, I have become less convinced. Isn’t it convenient that we can blame technology, that behemoth with which we traditionally have an uneasy relationship, for the lack of connection we might feel? And yet, even if, as some figures suggest, Americans are now lonelier and have fewer confidants than in the past, there is still little data to show this trend is being caused by social media.

I agree with Dr. Grohol, who states: “[Using social media] doesn’t stop me from having those in-depth, face-to-face conversations, or put them off. I’m under no illusion (or delusion) that having a social networking circle of hundreds or thousands makes me more social.”

Instead, what social media allows us to do is maintain, in unprecedented volume and frequency, our weak ties. What is a weak tie? Someone who we don’t know very well, an acquaintance, if you will. By fostering so many weak ties, we are able to continue to expand our social networks and have potential reach to larger numbers of people, many of whom we will never directly meet or communicate with.

Obviously this is a major boon when we are, say, trying to sell something or build a reputation for ourselves or looking for a different job. But it can also be valuable because of the different insights and opinions we are exposed to, the potential actual friends we might meet, and the recommendations we might receive. Not to mention the benefits of being able to keep in touch, however superficially, with friends and family who live far away.

However, it’s not hard to see how social media might appear to make us lonely, especially if used as a kind of social substitute that it isn’t. If I am already feeling lonely and then I hop onto Facebook, the odds that spending half an hour reading my “friends’” status messages will make me feel any better are fairly low. But I have noticed a certain irrational expectation in myself that seeing all those photos and clicking “Like” a few times will magically pick up my spirits. Note to future self: that doesn’t work! Go out and see someone instead.

It’s interesting to watch ourselves learning how to deal with so many weak ties at once, a feat about which we are only now gaining experience. I like to think of social media as a party: a few of your really good friends are there, which is especially awesome. Then there’s those people who you’ve been seeing at these parties for years, and that’s the only time you talk to them. And there’s the newcomers, the people you don’t know so well but it’s interesting to chat with them for a few minutes. Except this is happening all the time on your computer, not just for three or four hours at a scheduled event.

And just like at a party, most people are trying to present their best selves. Many of them will keep their dirty laundry and deeper troubles mostly under wraps. A few of them might have embarrassingly public meltdowns. We’re surprised when  the perfect married couple announces their impending divorce, when that vibrant woman turns out to have been suffering from a life-threatening disease, when bits and pieces of messy life burst unavoidably out into public view.

And social media is very much the same. We are presented with a smooth and managed facade, and sometimes we forget the facade does not always reflect what’s going on under the surface. All those people in your social media networks who have perfect lives with adorable children and exciting jobs and exotic vacations? Maybe her child vomited all over the living room this morning, or that exciting company is going through a round of layoffs, or that exotic vacation meant forty-eight hours of pure, unadulterated suffering from food poisoning. Some people show this underbelly of their lives, but many choose not to. It’s the way weak ties work. And as depressing as all this seeming perfection can occasionally be, we mostly find it depressing because we are not used to weak ties; we haven’t internalized the knowledge that these public statuses are only a small percentage of the whole. We believe, often without question, the stories people choose to tell about themselves.

The societal shift we are experiencing is certainly not without its difficulties. But social media, and the internet as a whole, are just technological tools like all other such tools. Sometimes we use them skillfully, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we lack the understanding of how such tools work or for what they work best. Sometimes we’re not very interested in trying them out at all.

But I suspect loneliness arises much more from our physical environments and the strong ties that we either have or don’t have with other people. Strong ties that are fostered by face-to-face interaction, video chat, phone calls, and the exchange of letters and emails. Blaming a tool meant for developing weak ties for any trouble with strong ties seems misguided at best.

What do you think? Do you have less in-person conversations or strong ties because of the advent of social media? Have you been able to develop strong ties as well as weak ties through a social media service? How much does face-to-face time matter in your close relationships?

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Does publicly stating our goals make us more accountable and therefore more likely to achieve them? According to some recent research, no, not as much as we may think. Apparently sharing a goal publicly sometimes actually decreasesour commitment to it. In addition, we feel we’ve made more progress towards the goal just through the act of sharing it, without taking any other action whatsoever, therefore making us more likely to feel complacent or like we don’t need to work as hard.I bring up this little tidbit of research because I’ve seen lots of advice saying the exact opposite. I’ve been advised that sharing my daily word count, both target and actual number, can help my productivity. I’ve seen people sharing their monthly fitness challenges and their target weight numbers. Even my routine of blogging twice a week is a public commitment of sorts. The tried and true advice seems to be that if you wish to finish a project, tell someone about it and that way if you don’t do it, you’ll feel bad–hopefully bad enough that you’ll actually push yourself through it.Yeah, and that works so well with New Year’s resolutions…

Increasing accountability can be a wonderful tool. I have many friends who take exercise classes or work with a trainer on a regular schedule to keep themselves exercising. Music lessons work in the same way; after we have paid the money and form a working relationship with our instructor/trainer, we have greater incentive to “get our money’s worth” and work harder for our instructor’s praise. Other people make their business goals public and are thus able to gain valuable PR, build tribes (aka fan bases), and raise capital. Sharing goals can also be a great way to bond with a community.

However, I question whether external validation, pressure, and support are enough. Perhaps they’ll give us a boost when we need one and help get us through the hard times. But we shouldn’t forget the importance of internal commitment. How highly do we value our goals, and do we value ourselves highly enough to see them through? What do we actually care about? How can we best support ourselves? And at what point do we need to reevaluate our goals and adjust as necessary?

I don’t think the answer is to eschew public goal-making altogether. Rather, I think it’s important to pay attention and make sure that stating our aims publicly is having the desired effect. If we realize that telling other people what we mean to do is making us feel like we’ve accomplished more than we have, we can compensate for that fact by giving ourselves “extra” to do. If we realize that we often share plans that we don’t follow through on, then we can stop sharing and see if there’s a noticeable difference. If we have systems in place that work well at increasing our accountability, then we can keep on doing what works.

We are not cookie-cutter creatives; we are not one-size-fits-all human beings. As a result, so much advice and so many rules turn out to be over-simplifications. When thinking advice over and deciding on a best course of action, here’s what I try to remember: do what works.

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When I announced the Backbone Project two weeks ago, I expected to get some practice at writing essays that weren’t terribly conciliatory, at responding to people who disagreed with me, and at addressing subjects that I might normally hesitate to talk about. And I was right, to a point; I did in fact get practice in all of the above. But I learned a lot more than I anticipated.

First off, I learned that Ferrett is right (which probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to many of you). Here I’ve been spending all this energy softening the expression of my viewpoints and trying my hardest to keep everyone happy, and it turns out that’s not so interesting. People respond more when I’m less nice, less perfection-geared, and less careful, as you can see from the amazing comment threads on all three of the Backbone Project essays.

Also, when people disagree with me or even dislike me, I don’t spontaneously combust into flames. Instead, I have a feeling of strength. There’s something bracingly exciting about saying: This is who I am, and this is where I stand. You don’t have to agree with me, but here I am, like it or not.

In a small, private-ish corner of the internet, I even stirred up a tiny hornet’s nest. Yes, indeed, there were all sorts of strangers saying, among other things, how judgmental and smug I am, how if I’ve had problems with not drinking, it must be because of my attitude (otherwise known as victim blaming, but whatever), and that it is completely not a big deal to not drink. At first, I felt terrible. I should have chosen my words more carefully. I was an awful person, both to write such an essay and to not want to drink in the first place. That second assertion snapped me out of it and instead I felt defensive. They hadn’t read my essay! They definitely hadn’t read the comments following it. They didn’t understand. For awhile, I yo-yoed between the two states.

And then I realized it wasn’t a big deal. The conversation wasn’t even about me. Anybody who no longer liked me or no longer wanted to read my blog probably wasn’t my friend or ideal reader in the first place. “Congratulations,” my husband said. “Having people tear you apart on the internet means you’ve leveled up. You have more influence now.” Oh. Who knew?

Meanwhile, I was busy being educated, and the remaining small rough patch of alienation caused by not drinking alcohol was being healed as I found solidarity in a completely unexpected way. As all of you shared the ways in which you are different, told your stories about being child free or hating to be photographed, not wearing shoes and being vegetarian/vegan, not driving and being polyamorous, I began to feel not so much held apart by my differences as brought closer to all of you who have had similar struggles. Indeed, our differences became something we have in common. I learned so much from all three conversations, and I’m looking forward to many more.

Of course, while my goal for the Backbone Project was to write three essays, in reality the project is ongoing, which is great, because it supports what I’m doing in the rest of my life as well. I’m going to keep trying to avoid the wishy-washy and to write strongly and bravely. I know I won’t always succeed, but my guess is that the more I do it, the better I will become.

And remember, you have until tonight to send me links to your own Backbone Project essays. There have been some really awesome posts going up this last week, and I can’t wait to share them with everybody!

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Jay Lake recently wrote an intriguing blog post about his theory of problems. To summarize, he states that problems cannot  be compared–that just because his problems (fighting cancer) are very serious, that doesn’t mean that other people’s “less serious” problems don’t matter too. He goes on to say that he still cares about his friends and that sometimes it can be a relief to talk about something besides cancer, even if the something else isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. (There is more interesting discussion in the comments, so you should check it out.)

 

I am in complete agreement. It is impossible to compare problems or lives, even though people try to do it all the time. It isn’t a contest with all of us competing to see who can have the biggest sob story to tell, who can be busiest and most stressed, who can have their behavior excused because gosh darn it, life hasn’t treated them well. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own actions regardless of the problems we face. And each of us has the problems we have, and since we can’t literally be in someone else’s head (at least not yet!), we can’t know how our suffering truly compares.

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?

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