Someone once told me a simple statement to keep perspective on pain. It went something like this: “If you break your leg, and you find out your neighbor had his leg amputated, it can give you perspective, but it doesn’t make your leg hurt any less.” That phrase has really been helpful to me over the years when I am tempted to flood myself with guilt over recognizing some pain in my life. I started finding truth in quotes about everyone having their own battles to fight. I figured when people seemed to have fabulous lives, they just weren’t sharing the whole picture. I started to believe it was all about perspective…
And then the bottom fell out of my life.
Suddenly, perspective wasn’t going to solve anything.
I still thought it could, though. I kept reminding myself that there were people around the world that had much more difficult lives than I did. All it did was make me feel worse. All I could think of was all the times I had been annoyed by the phrase “It’s so good for them to see how good they have it” by parents of teenagers about to go to another country or to the inner city. As if disadvantaged people existed just so other people could feel better about their own lives. I couldn’t figure out why I was unable to change my perspective. I tried making a “blessing jar” and filling it with little pieces of paper with all of the “good” things that were happening. All it did was depress me more, as it took an entire year to fill a small mason jar. I knew that if I had written half of what had gone wrong, it would have filled several jars. Even when something would work out in our favor, it felt like an empty victory.
What really drove me crazy were all the people who would respond to my incredibly painful story with “we all have our burdens to bear” type of responses. I was amazed at how people really had talked themselves into believing that. When someone “complains” about not being able to do something I consider to be extravagant, it’s hard to be sympathetic. I’m not saying we can tell from the outside what kind of life someone has. Some people really do bear incredible burdens in silence and solitude. It just seems like the understanding of what is actually painful has somehow been lost. In an effort not to diminish small pains, we have made all pain equal.
What difference does it make? It’s HUGE, actually.
I think it’s easiest to understand by using the statement about the two different leg injuries as an example. Yes, breaking your leg hurts. No, knowing your neighbor lost their leg doesn’t take away your pain. However, the mistake a lot of us make is to stop there. The fact is a broken leg will heal with little if any residual issues. The same can definitely not be said for an amputation. Not all pain is created equal.
If you see your own pain as equal to everyone else’s in the world, you will have little if any sympathy or empathy for anyone else. Starving children, abused women, homeless veterans… they don’t bring up any kind of emotion in us because we are struggling “just like they are”.
But that’s just not true.
I remember the first time I heard a song on an old Sade CD called “Pearls”. It talks about how hard her life is and how strong she is and then it says: “She lives a life she didn’t choose. And it hurts like brand new shoes.”
She lives a life she didn’t choose.
It really struck me. It’s not like I had thought anyone would choose to live a life of poverty in Africa, but the idea that she had no control over her circumstances really floored me. And yet, many of us still insist that it’s all about the perspective. We blame unhappy people for causing their own pain. We want them to “look on the bright side”. In attempting to “help” them gain perspective, we might as well be waving a magic wand and saying “Look! No more pain!” It’s just not that simple. Some people have deep, deep pain that isn’t going to be diminished by putting it all in perspective. Some pain is very real.
So it’s all about the balance. Is it good to recognize our own pain and not feel guilty about experiencing it? Yes. Is it good to focus so much on our own pain that we fail to recognize pain in others? No.
It all comes down to jealousy and guilt vs. love and compassion.
It’s so hard to be happy for other people. It’s equally hard to mourn along with them. We are competitive beings. We want our share of sympathy as well as our share of envy. We want the kind of life that others will envy, and we don’t want to feel guilty when our friends and family have problems. We want sympathy when our plans go awry, but we are jealous when our friends and family seem to be gliding along without problems. We don’t want to risk our own position of happiness and envy in order to try to help someone who’s struggling.
We need to remember to always walk in each other’s shoes. Love means being happy for other people. Love means being sad when they have disappointments. Love means not comparing our lives to see if we are better or worse off than others. Love means caring about what is really going on in someone else’s life that may or may not be causing pain or joy.
Love doesn’t worry about what color the grass is, but it does recognize that it’s not always the same. Seeing your neighbor’s dead grass isn’t an opportunity to compare how green it makes your grass look. However, it also doesn’t mean trying to convince your neighbor that your grass is just as bad as his is simply because you have one dandelion and one patch of crab grass.