I been having thinking about what I wrote in my last post, suggesting that hurricanes are not as terrible as war. It’s the suffering-comparison part that I’ve had second thoughts about.
Over the last few post-storm days, as neighbors share damage notes (mostly just lack of electricity around here), they almost always say, “I really shouldn’t complain, it could be worse.” We feel guilty about complaining when we know our not-so distant neighbors have endured more loss. And while having this perspective can help move us beyond a very low spot, when it hurts, it still hurts.
In a moment of pain, when we stub our toe, all we know is the pain in our toe. It does not help to hear, “at least you are not having a heart attack.” Last Saturday, I brought my daughter to the hospital to make sure her foot was not broken. Throughout our visit she was asked multiple times what her level of pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. She said 6 and an x-ray revealed there is no break. How can they judge an individual’s capacity for pain? Everybody has their own threshold, don’t they?
During some of my darkest hours, I found tremendous comfort in groups like Al-Anon and grieving groups. Hearing other people’s stories, the terribleness of life with their addict, their child — seemed infinitely worse than my struggles with my spouse. And after his suicide, deaths of a partner by accident or heart attack seemed more awful than those of us who’d been living with our mate’s sickness for a long time. We reluctantly admitted that death also brought an element of relief, whereas an unexpected loss of a loved one seemed it must be harder to bear. And maybe these fellow survivors felt the same about my story. That’s the way it seems to work — paying attention to other people’s pain can lift us beyond our own, inspire compassion and most of all, make us feel like we are not quite as alone.
Regardless of the root or severity, pain still hurts and deserves recognition. And I think, that’s often all we want.
I went through a spell where I felt very sorry for myself and wished my troubles might somehow be visible out in the world. A few months after my husband’s death, I went for a mammogram and discovered I had breast cancer. The most innocuous, benign cancer one can have — needing only a lumpectomy and radiation. I mostly felt lucky during my weeks of treatment, that things weren’t worse, that I didn’t need chemo.
But there were bad days when I wished everyone could see the psychic pain I was in. I felt ashamed at the time, (and even writing this now) that I briefly wished I had experienced the hair-loss of chemo. I would have hated it of course, because of my vanity and also because sympathy from strangers makes me uncomfortable. Yet there it was — a desire to complain about my lot, to tell my sad story – not as sad as some – but it definitely sucked. At the time, I think I wanted the world to know so I could get cut some extra slack. I wanted extra kindness – because no matter the level of pain, it helps.