It seems like you can’t rank anguish. You shouldn’t be able to “out-suffer” someone. How do you quantify misery?
And yet, somehow we do.
“My problems are nowhere near as bad as yours.”
“I feel terrible complaining to you about it when you are going through so much yourself.”
I hear these types of comments all the time.
I make these types of comments all the time.
Placing ourselves in a hierarchy of pain and suffering serves to ground us; no matter how bad our situation is, there’s comfort in knowing there’s always someone who has it worse. Like being on a really, really long line at the movies or at the check-in at the airport, as long as there is someone behind you, it somehow seems better.
Hospitals use a pain rating scale: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain?” I was very intrigued when my son Colin was in the hospital for a week with a ruptured appendix and they asked him to rate his pain. At the time he was 5 years old and didn’t understand what they wanted him to do. He didn’t understand the concept of comparing one level of pain to another: it hurt… that’s all he knew. He used a binary scale to assess his pain: did it hurt or not? But as adults we know better: pain is not a yes-or-no question. Rather, there can be levels, ranking, quantification, and comparisons.
These mental exercises are necessary to keep us going through hard times, no matter what type. Before I got cancer, cancer was a “go-to” negative reference point. I mean, how many times have you thought “I’ve got health problems, but at least it’s not cancer”?
I did that. A benign lump needs to come out? At least it’s not cancer. A mole needs to be removed? At least it’s not cancer. My son has a cyst in his spinal column? At least it’s not cancer.
Then one day it was cancer.
So what could I pacify myself with?
At least it’s not terminal.
At least they can remove the body parts it’s in.
At least I have tools to fight it.
Then there was the big one: at least it’s happening to me and not my child.
I have a few friends with children who have had different types of cancer. These men and women (and their children, of course) are tough and have my utmost respect. I have thought many times, “That is harder. At least that’s not me. I don’t know what I would do.” When my son Tristan was diagnosed with deformities in his neck I thought “at least it’s something physical. At least it’s not something wrong with his brain. At least it’s not something that is fatal.” It’s cold comfort though. It’s still pain. It’s still grief. It is still hard.
I have often said I hate becoming anyone’s negative reference point. “At least I’m not her” someone might think of me. I always thought that meant they pitied me. I didn’t want that. But now I realize that it is okay for people to be glad they haven’t walked in my shoes– in reality, that’s what I want. I don’t want anyone to be where I have been; I’d like to be the lightning rod that keeps others I know safe. But, if it gives comfort to anyone to know that at least for today, their problems are not as big as mine, I think that’s good.
Because actually, at least for today, I’m doing just fine. I had laughs, and warmth, and hugs, and a day without pain—and I know that there are many people out there who can’t say the same.
Today I’m not the last one on line.