Have you ever been asked how you’re doing? Sometimes, the honest answer is ‘terrible’ .But before you start to articulate the truth, an urgent message pops into your brain box. Here’s what it says – ‘other people have it much worse. How dare you moan about your life?’ So you clamp down on your real feelings and say, ‘fine’. Or perhaps you hint at a bit of tiredness. But you certainly don’t voice what’s really going on.
What’s going on here?
Yes, there are millions of people who are much worse off than me. But their pain doesn’t negate mine. And sometimes when I say that others have it worse, it’s just a convenient way of side-stepping issues that I need to address. Or messy feelings I don’t want to share.
Because let’s face it, there will always be people who are worse off than you. And it’s important to keep our problems in perspective. Getting a parking ticket is not the same as dealing with a chronic illness. But when I utter these words, what is their purpose? Does it for example, drive me to prayer for the people I’m comparing myself to? Or are those people an amorphous guilt-inducing mass – ‘the sad’, for example, rather than specific individuals?
Very often when I say something like this, it acts as a smokescreen for my feelings. A short-hand way of saying, ‘I’m fine, now shut up’.
And how is the other person supposed to respond? ‘No – your pain is bigger than everyone elses’ Or ‘yes – other people have it bad, therefore your feelings are irrelevant’? Either way, you’ve set up an imaginary scale of suffering in which you have to plot and justify your own. Turn on the news and unless you’ve survived a natural disaster, you haven’t got a leg to stand on.
Please don’t mishear me. Especially in the West, our struggles are not equivalent to those who are fighting for homes and bread and life itself.
But pain isn’t quantifiable, like a neat maths equation. Bob has a headache – he gets two points. But Jenny’s lost her job – so she raises him by at least five. Saying that, she’s married. Deduct three points. And they’ve got a beach hut. Hang on – why am I wasting time on this person? She should be listening to Me!
Feeling guilty about your own petty worries doesn’t erase them. In fact, it adds to the problem. It makes us feel resentful and depressed. Not only am I struggling (‘Weak’), I’m also A Bad Person. And the people who tend to fall into this category aren’t usually the ones moaning about their ingrowing toenails. They’re prone to beating themselves up and feeling like very inferior humans, let alone Christians.
So it’s a bit like when you’re a kid and eyeballing Mum over that intransigent cabbage mountain left on your dinner plate. All the fork manoeuvring in the world won’t disguise those poisonous greens. But having exhausted the ‘no dessert’ option, out come the big guns. ‘Think of all the starving children’. Arrrrggh.
Mum’s right. There are millions of children who would kill to have a fraction of what I have. But the comparison never helped me finish what was on my plate. And it didn’t help me to care more for those worse off than myself. The cabbage –guilt combination works the same way today. It’s often a silencing tactic, a neat verbal side-step that stops us being real. But when we are freed to be ourselves, in all our weakness and vulnerability, that’s when we actually start caring about those who are worse off.