The Hierarchy of Suffering

This meme has been going around like wildfire lately. It expresses the common idea that the way not to judge others for their struggles is to think that maybe they are not as strong as you are. On the surface, the intention is great. The idea is to encourage people not to judge others’ suffering. Every time I see it though, or hear someone express the idea it visualizes, I get so frustrated about the more subtle issue with this idea.

In the picture, one dog is smaller than the other dog. There’s nothing wrong with that, he’s a Jack Russell terrier, they are meant to be smaller than a Golden Retriever. Of course, the mud comes up much farther on the Jack Russell Terrier than it does on the Golden Retriever because the Golden is taller. In the same way, many people comfort others who compare their struggles to others saying, “Maybe God gave you this cross because you are strong enough to carry it,” “Maybe she just couldn’t handle what you are going through,” and other variants of you-must-be-stronger-than-them-because-their-struggle-is-smaller-than-yours. That’s where I struggle.

There is this idea that there is a hierarchy of suffering. My dislocated elbow is not as intense as my friends breast cancer, my post-partum depression is worse than someone else’s anxiety, etc etc and so on. It leads to a kind of competition about suffering. There are real life consequences to this competition-who gets taken care of in a hospital, who is allowed to talk about their struggles, who doesn’t get judged for being tired, who gets help from friends or the Church. To be fair, we live in a world of limited resources, so to a certain extent this can be avoided, and to a certain extent there is a hierarchy of suffering, no one would argue that a paper cut or a dislocated elbow is as bad as cancer.

However, I do think that the hierarchy of suffering is much more complicated than we might think. There are so many unknown factors that go into suffering that sometimes a seemingly small thing can be monumental and something really big can be nothing. When I had a placental abruption and ended up in the hospital terrified that my baby and I were going to die and then went through a terrifying labor, it was honestly far less terrifying than the experience I had with my dislocated elbow, as ironic as that is. Recovering from the elbow has been actually much more difficult than recovering from what should have been a much more difficult trauma.

The reason for this is that there are countless factors that contribute to how intense pain and suffering feels. Researchers are finding more and more just how many things affect how the brain perceives pain. There are whole industries and books based on all the different ways we can affect the pain in our bodies.

As far as my example above about birth vs. my elbow, there are some big obvious differences. I got a baby out of the equation, not so with my elbow. I did fear for my life in a way I didn’t need to with my elbow. However, I DID fear for my life with my elbow, because I have already been struggling with Post Partum Anxiety that has been debilitating, and I wasn’t struggling with that as intensely during labor. This was not helped by the fact that when I fell I was actively praying, and it seemed like an answer to a prayer, which felt like God was a God of wrath who hated me, sending me into a terrified circle of spiritual crisis that haunted me the whole night, while the doctors and nurses encouraged me with prayer during labor.

Another huge difference is the care I got. When I went to the hospital for my placental abruption, I had been reading Hypnobabies which works really hard on preparing women to communicate with their doctors. Because of that I was able to communicate my anxiety and physical worries in a rational way, and did not feel guilty for forcing doctors and nurses to stop and listen to me if I felt like they were rushing. On top of that though, immediately when I got to the hospital, the nurses attending heard my requests and needs and did their best to meet them, even when they were silly. When I dislocated my elbow, the nurse immediately denied every request I had, rolled her eyes at me, and communicated her annoyance to a doctor who came to help. No other nurses came in contact with me until much later.

I believe the care I got for my elbow is a consequence of exactly what I am discussing in this post. A dislocated or broken elbow is nothing in the grand scheme of things. I am aware of that. I am aware that much much worse things happen to people every day. But the care I got reminded me of that every second of my struggle. Every second I felt reminded me, “you don’t matter because it’s not your femur, it’s not cancer, it’s not blood.”

I was also dehydrated, hungry and away from my baby while breastfeeding. All things I didn’t realize until much later, but that are probably the explanation for the random cold sweats and hormonal shifts that turned into panic attacks that plagued me all night on top of everything else, and probably made the care I got worse because the nurses couldn’t see what was happening so it just looked like anxiety to them.

When I dislocated my elbow, I had a veritable cocktail of things that are known to make pain worse, while during labor I had many that are known to make it better. On the surface and on paper the elbow should be nothing. Anyone comparing the two would have said that labor was worse, but after the traumatic labor I was joyful and relieved and felt invincible; after my elbow I felt that there was no hope in life, angry, and worthless.

My point is that what someone’s suffering looks like on the outside may be nothing compared to what it looks like on the inside. The assumption that someone’s pain is not as intense as yours, or you are just stronger than they are dismisses the fact that you have no idea what is going on in their story. You have no idea what is making their pain worse or better or different than yours. I think it’s comforting to us to feel like our pain is better than someone else’s because then our needs deserve to get validated, but that’s just part of the competition. We need to feel like our pain is enough to be worth taking care of, so we have to put down other peoples because it highlights how bad our own pain is. The problem is that that affects how we take care of the other person, and how we view them, as well as how we describe their problem to others and help them to get help. Their suffering grows and our need to justify our own gets more intense too.

I want to live in a world where we recognize that everyone’s suffering matters. In the Gospel, when Jesus was carrying His cross, about to be murdered in arguably the most monstrous way possible, He stopped to talk to weeping women. He told them not to weep for Him, but for their children. I have heard some say that He is telling them to weep for sins, but the way He says it tells me that isn’t the case. I believe He was genuinely expressing compassion for the suffering that women experience, while He was on the road that we would say is the worst suffering imaginable. I would like a world where everyone does that, where everyone accepts that we are all on an unimaginably and sometimes unbearable journey, where we accept our own suffering and that of others as worthy of healing, no matter what it is, where we acknowledge that our struggles do not make us better or worse than anyone else, just different. Then, we would have a spirit of sorrow for everyone’s tears even if we didn’t understand why it was so hard. We could show the same amount of compassion for someone who had to wait at the DMV as someone who got crushed in a car accident. We could heal all the big hurts and all the little ones too.

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