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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For David and Karly <3

She did not look like anyone I had seen before. There was a red shape on her face that terrified me. I thought then that it was because I thought she was ugly, and I was so ashamed that I never talked to her. I think now, that it was because it scared me. I didn’t know what could cause something like that and I was selfishly afraid it could happen to me too if it happened to her. I think I was also afraid of what caused it. I was afraid she had gone through something really painful. I was afraid of the possibility that kids may have made fun of her. I was afraid to make it worse, and to be a part of her pain that was unimaginable to me. So I never talked to her.

Still, she was a sun-kissed beauty, radiant with love and affection. I will never forget the image of her laughing sweetly on the handlebars of David’s bike. Her hair was iconically hers, the shape of it was completely unique to her. It was blonde and brown at the same time, and the humidity frizzed it, but just enough to make it come alive. Her head tilted to her left shoulder as she balanced on the hard metal beam, clutching the handlebars so hard that her shoulders rose inwards and up to her chin. Her 50’s style skirt billowed around them, and yet remained perfectly tucked around her legs. It was khaki, and the fashion police inside of me couldn’t stand that, but they were happy.

He was just beside and behind her, as he always was. His olive skin was covered by a brown beard and shaggy haircut. He looked like an underdone college professor, if they grew like trees looking like themselves from the very beginning, complete with rimless glasses. At the same time, he glowed with the glee of a twelve year old boy, effusive with Karly’s presence. She was everything he needed, and everyone could see it.

I never talked to them, but I watched their sweet romance unfold with awe. They were so simply beautiful and happy, in a way that I had never been, and really could not understand. She was blissful when he picked her up with a rose from class. The night they became engaged their fingers intertwined and the twist of their hands around each other pushed their shoulders awkwardly into each other, but it did not matter. They were joy and romance incarnate.

Whenever I see scenes from Roman Holiday I think of them, but there was an innocence to them that surpassed even Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. There was this classic ordinary-ness that made their love real, but I never knew any of the flaws or silly arguments that everyone has, so they were still perfect. I still don’t fully understand my own fear of them.

Many years later, I found out that David had gotten sick. What seemed like no time at all later, I found out Karly was too. I was so upset, but I ignored it, and I went on with my life. Occasionally, I saw their posts, and everytime I saw them, I would want to cry for what they were going through, but I would close the page, so that I couldn’t see. I told myself I was protecting myself, which I was, but I was denying myself the power of praying for them, of hearing their beautiful story, of watching their beautiful life.

They have four kids now, who are all so beautiful and perfect. They have been joyful through so much suffering I cannot even fathom how they are doing it, if not for some miracle from heaven. This week, David died.

I am so angry for them.

I am so angry that Karly has lost him.

I remember the pain when I lost Emma. The moment when I felt a pain in my heart so intense that I thought I would stop breathing, or worse that I somehow would cease to exist. What was even worse was the pain of being alive with that pain in my heart, existing while my heart exploded out of my body in an ache that choked my lungs.

I know what it feels like to lose someone. I can’t stand that they are going through this.

This morning, I was doing dishes and making pancakes, and my body started to slam pots and pans, throw things roughly into the trash, and it wanted to scream and break every piece of glass in the house. I thought I was angry because my husband is struggling with biology, and I’m living with my parents, and I don’t have a car, and I’m going through a lot. So I went outside. I exploded out the door with fury, as if going outside would somehow free me from the anger igniting inside of me, fully expecting to rage to God about what’s going on in my own life. Instead, my rage was for them.

I started muttering underneath my breath, trying to appear sane, because I do not live in the middle of nowhere anymore, and there are people everywhere. Thankfully, none outside, so I could somewhat pretend to be alone, but anyone could have been watching, and that’s embarrassing, but oh well.

“I cannot believe you would do this to her…
She did nothing but follow you!
Why did he die?
Why him?
They did nothing wrong!
They were so beautiful!
They were so kind!
They never hurt anyone!
How could you do this to them?
Haven’t they suffered enough?
I can’t believe we live in a world that they could suffer so much.
What kind of a world have you created?
What kind of monster creates people just to torture them for their entire lives?
Why would you create us just to watch us burn?
How could you do this to her?
She has 4 kids.
She needs him.
They love each other.”

It didn’t stop there. I raged through falling snow and sobbed for them. I hid behind the pool house, and let my own heart bleed for her, and I prayed. I prayed that everything I am suffering right now would heal her heart so she would never feel what I felt when Emma died. I begged God to take that pain from her. I screamed at Him about letting that pain exist. I cried for her, I cried for me, I cried for my children, my parents, my husband, my friends, my neighbors, my people, acquaintances I have read about on Facebook that are just trying to get ahead.

“What the Hell, God?”

Then, like a flash in my head, I remembered writing about Shonda Rhimes using Grey’s Anatomy to comfort people, and I knew my purpose.

See, when I was a kid, I would grieve like this for others, but I slowly closed myself off. I told myself that I could not survive with everyone else’s pain and my own. I had to shut off everyone else’s so I could just feel mine. Closing off emotions doesn’t mean they aren’t there though, so everything that happened to me hurt worse than it would have because it was a symbol of all the pain I was ignoring. I became bitter and angry, and I didn’t help people anymore. It hurt too much. I felt stupid for bawling at funerals of people I barely knew, so I controlled my emotions.

“I will give you a new heartĀ and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stoneĀ and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26

My heart of stone is broken. I worked so hard to create it, to hide who I really am, to pretend I am not meant to be there for others, to pretend it wasn’t my whole purpose in existing. It wasn’t my fault. I was a kid, and that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. My writing was given to me for a reason. My writing was given to me so that with every word I could take away a little bit of someone’s pain. It was given to me, as a gift, for the body of Christ, which is everyone on earth. Every. Single. Person. No. Matter. What.

If I could, I would go back in time and I would touch young Adolf Hitler. I would hold him, and tell him everything is going to be okay one day.

If I could, I would hold every single one of you who have ever thought about suicide, and I would tell you to wait. I would tell you to stay here, don’t leave us, you don’t know who is out there right now crying for you.

If I could, I would hold you as you cried, and I would tell you that God does love us, and there is goodness in this world. Sometimes, even I don’t believe it, but I can hold you until we can see it again.

We are all struggling. “We are all in this together,” High School Musical lyrics in the face of evil, screaming back against the night. We will not let it overtake us.

I am here for you. I do not have much to offer, everytime I try to do something for someone it falls apart, but I will sit here with you in your pain, and I will pray, and I will offer my tears for you, and I will touch your heart however I can. I will fail, and I will miss what you need me to say, and I will say the wrong thing, but let every word I say be a comfort to you anyway. It’s not enough, but please accept my presence with you, my love for you. You are not alone.

Karly, I am praying for you now, and I always will. My entire life I will remember you and David as the beautiful couple who suffered unimaginable pain and did the best they possibly could with every day they were given. I will think of you for years to come, and I will pray for you, and I will offer my struggles for you. I would move heaven and earth for you if I could take away the pain you are feeling right now, but I can’t, so let me offer you this. You are not alone, and you will never be alone.

What the New York Abortion Bill Means to Me

When I found out I was pregnant with Emma, my husband walked away from me, went upstairs and blared slipknot. I trembled downstairs in fear.

When I was pregnant with Emma, my husband and I fought every single day. These were not little, meaningless spats. They were screaming arguments, “How are we going to pay for that? How are we going to take care of her? What are we going to do?” We would scream at each other for hours and break down into the kind of sobs that take over your whole body, and your guts come out through your eyes.

It never stopped. Every single day we erupted in terror at the only person we could talk to about it.

We were Catholic. There were no options. We were stuck, and we were screwed. We had no insurance because we couldn’t afford it, but because we were paying rent we couldn’t get Medicaid. We didn’t have our own house. We were living in a tiny bedroom, sleeping together in a twin bed as I grew enormous in a matter of weeks. My mom has always said that using NFP meant that you didn’t really trust God, and I had had virtually no sex education so it didn’t occur to me how quickly you could get pregnant, if you were married(obviously you get pregnant if you even think about having sex if you aren’t married.)

Our marriage was ruined, we had no idea how we would survive, or how she would. I was terrified of hospitals, and we couldn’t afford one anyway.

I had fleeting thoughts of wishing I would miscarry, but I could feel her. She was present in me and I knew her, but I couldn’t stand the pain of knowing that she would always be afraid because we couldn’t provide for her.

It got so bad that I considered abortion. Not fully, not seriously, but for a second, I thought about it. It is almost impossible for me to admit that as a Catholic.

Later, I don’t even know how it happened, but one day I realized I was reading a how-to on committing a natural abortion. I think I may have been searching for vitamin safety during pregnancy, and then saw this article and was so shocked it even existed. I had been taking a ton of vitamins that weren’t safe to stay healthy while I was so run down, and again, for a split second, I thought, “What if I just kept doing it?”

It couldn’t be a sin right? It’s just taking a vitamin, for my health. It’d be an accident. I’d like to think I didn’t mean it, but I was so scared.

We lost her a week later.

In the most horrifying, tragic moment of my life, I miscarried our honeymoon baby.

I don’t know if it was the vitamins I was taking unknowingly, the lack of sleep, the exhausting work I was doing, the stress, or just my body’s inability to form the baby correctly, but whatever it was she was gone. She IS gone.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel some repercussion of losing her. She is my butterfly effect proof. She is everywhere. She was all over my periods every time I questioned whether they were miscarriages or not. She was there every step of my pregnancy with my rainbow, and my double rainbow. She is there when I check my babies breathing at night. She is there when I hear stories of women losing their children. She is in me still, even though she’s not for anyone else.

I cannot believe now that there were moments I did not want her. Now, I would give anything to take those moments back, to have her back. I was so scared, and I try not to blame myself, but losing a child, whether it is your fault or not, is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. It is the greatest pain that you can imagine, and it isn’t healed by time. The thought fades, thankfully, but the grief never does.

In the face of the New York bill, what I want to say to you, is that you do not know what these women are feeling. A woman who is losing her child, has lost her child, or could lose her child, is in a kind of pain that you cannot imagine if you have not been there. There are women who are pro-life who have held their own children lifeless in their arms, and they cannot stand the idea of another child being lost. There are women who are pro-choice who have faced the worst nightmares and had to ask “what do I do?” No matter who you are, you do not know what is in the hearts of who you are against. You do not know what drives them.

So? You ask. What do I do with that information? Find out. Learn from the pain of others how to address problems in a way that helps everyone. Ask the mom who is contemplating abortion what she needs, and help her find it. Start a fund for women who are struggling. Be compassionate. If you are pro-choice, ask the pro-life women what are they worried about, what is wrong with the bill? What do they want?

More than anything, tell your story, tell it as loud as you possibly can, until you are heard. Stop telling everyone else what’s wrong with them, and speak your truth.

Nightmares

That’s a pain I’m not ready to write yet,
It’s the one that flashes when I close my eyes
And threatens to keep me from sleep,
The poison that ceases the pain.

It is the one that lies behind the press
Of haunts behind my head and neck
Taunting the air that treads upon and in
And breathing out in every sigh of relief.

Lie here in comfort like the night
Breathe in the beauty for magic sight.

What I Want

I want to love
I want to love in this burning heart.
For you I want
To long, come and remain apart.

In each dark sound
I want to hear your tender voice
And lie so soft
In Your love’s all-sheltering embrace.

I want to breathe
Free and enlivened and so new
That e’en in dark
The burning deep may rise from ash to you.

So come to me
And kiss a hearts too wounded beat
That I may see
And encompassed within Your own safety keep.

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