He doesn’t even know what pain is. There are so many people that have it worse than him. He just needs to be more grateful, I thought as my friend told me about how his depression and loneliness had left him desperate for answers.
“You will not know grief until you have buried a child,” a well-meaning friend told me after a dramatic break-up that had ravaged both my personal and public life.
“There is always someone who has it worse off than me,” A relative explained when I asked him “How are you doing?”
“Your concerns seem so small in comparison to what is going on in other countries,” I told my boyfriend after he expressed upset about the current American taxation system.
I like to call this “grief by comparison”.
This is when we measure pain based on an imaginary spectrum that flows from best to worst. Using this system, I can cleverly determine how bad I should be feeling based on whether my situation is worse than Aunt Martha’s but still better than the homeless man I saw smoking a cigarette he picked up from the sidewalk last night. I can also put my friend’s or family member’s grievances into a similar box and judge their complaints based on where they fit on the mental pain spectrum.
But what is this system, this grief by comparison, really saying? If we took the time to dissect the emotional framework behind some statements like “There’s always someone who has it worse”, here’s some ideas that we would likely find:
“Your pain is not real because it is not the same as my pain.”
“My hurt is meaningless and I should be ashamed of myself for being sad about anything ‘small’.”
“I am happy because even though other people are suffering, at least I am not!”
Read those again.
We know that it is not right to judge our success or failure in comparison to other people—to think, I may have just cheated on my husband, but at least I’m not in jail like my cousin or I’m a failure because I am just raising children and all my friends have blossoming careers. It would also be ridiculous for someone eating cheesecake to not enjoy their dessert because someone else in the world is probably eating better cheesecake.
So why do we think that it is okay to judge pain by comparison?
Comparison of any sort can be dangerous because it bases success/failure or happiness/sadness on a changing and unreliable standard. While the goal of grief by comparison is to give perspective, we are simply basing our perspective on a spectrum that allows us to judge ourselves and other people however we see fit in the moment.
So, here are a few ways that I think we can improve our response to grief of any sort:
- Do not compare grief. Listen to the voices of hurting people, even if you cannot relate personally to the pain that they are sharing. Don’t mock people for having “smaller concerns” than you do. Try to understand their pain without feeling the need to size it up in comparison to anything else. Also, do not feel ashamed to say, “this is really hard for me,” or “I’m really struggling.” Do not think that your pain is invalid because someone else has it worse. One quote from the Bible that is helpful to me in this regard is Proverbs 14:10 (ESV): “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” Because each person is different, each person’s pain and experience of circumstances is also different, and thus should not be compared.
- Judge your pain based not on other people’s pain, but on where it is leading and what it is doing. What is this grief working in your life and heart? How is it making you stronger or filling you with more endurance? Where is this pain leading?
Judge pain the way that Jesus did. He did not persevere through suffering because he knew that other people had it worse, he persevered “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV). Also in 2 Corinthians 4:17, affliction is called “light” and “momentary.” Why? Because it is insignificant compared to the pain of other people? Because someone else always has it worse? No! Because it “is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (4:17). Judge your own pain, and help others to see their pain in light of its purpose and end, not in light of other people.
- Serve those who have it worse instead of just being happy that you have it better. This one convicts me because I very frequently pass by a car accident and think, “At least I wasn’t there at that moment” or hear of a terrorist attack and muse, ” I’m grateful that I’m here and not there.” However, gratitude was not meant to inspire smug thoughts of our own good fortune, or even humble ideas about how lucky we should be feeling right now. Instead of using grief by comparison to merely feel grateful, try to think about how you can alleviate another person’s pain without putting it in contest with your own.
In closing, listen to other people’s pain. Accept your own pain without trying to fit it into a comparison mold, but also put it into the perspective of eternity.
Remember that so many good things in life are above comparison.
So why is pain any different?