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Posts Tagged ‘problems’

Today I have a story to tell you that takes place in India. Now, I’ve never been to India, partially because I tend to avoid places where catching malaria is an option and partially because of the stories my friends have told me. But happily, I have friends through whom I can live vicariously. And their stories, besides being amusing, serve to provide me with a healthy dose of perspective.

Now imagine, if you will, a thriving Indian town up in the Himalayas. It’s so hot and dusty that the shopkeepers throw cups of water on the dirt in front of their stores so there will be less dust. My friend was wandering in the middle of town when she suddenly felt violently ill (something that happens frequently to Westerners in India, from all accounts).

My friend had a dilemma. Her lodgings were on the outskirts of town, and there was no way she was going to get there in time. But there weren’t any public bathrooms for her to use either. So she began to scout out a likely location on the public streets to take care of business. She found a likely alcove guarded by a cow, so she squatted down there and was very sick. She told me the cow stared at her the entire time, and what was particularly amusing to her was that she was creating a cow patty of her own.

And then she realized she didn’t have any toilet paper.

Photo Credit: Mikelo via Compfight cc

My friend went back to her lodgings and told her partner what had happened. He said, “You think that’s bad? Listen what happened to me.” He proceeded to tell her a story of how he was sick during a ten-hour bus ride in India. The bus wouldn’t stop, so he was sick in his pants every two hours for the entire trip.

I don’t believe in problem comparing, but I do think these stories help us calibrate our perceptions of the world and gain a different perspective on our lives. They illustrate the twin truths that there is always someone who has it worse and that, even so, sometimes that doesn’t matter very much. Was being sick for ten hours on a bus worse than being sick out on the public street? Perhaps, and yet at a certain level, suffering is suffering.

These stories also make me feel extremely grateful for the comforts I enjoy. It’s so easy to take the things to which we are accustomed for granted, whether that be available restrooms, toilet paper, or food and water that doesn’t make us constantly ill. I’m glad I live somewhere clean with so much modern infrastructure. I’m glad I have hot water more than a few hours a day.

Finally, they highlight our lack of control over life. Sometimes things go wrong and we have to cope with it the best we can. And sometimes that means hiding in an alcove with a curious cow.

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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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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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