You know what’s a bummer? Having a chronic illness. There’s nothing fun about always being sick, missing out on everything, and having to rework your plans for the rest of your life.
You know what else is a bummer? Having a cold. There’s nothing fun about being extra tired, dripping with snot, and having to rework your plans for even a few days. The only upside to having a cold is when you’re a kid and you get to take Dimetapp because that stuff is delicious.
By the way, I don’t have a cold. That’s not where this is going.
So having a chronic illness is a bummer. And having a cold is a bummer. They are two very different situations and I think it’s safe to say that if given the choice between a lifelong chronic illness and a temporary cold everyone would choose the cold, but having a cold is still annoying. And just because there are people out there with more pressing health issues than the snot fountain in the middle of your face, you’re still allowed to be annoyed that it’s there.
Okay friends, now I’m going to tell you something really important. But first zoom out from the chronic illness vs. cold situation a little bit. A little bit more. Ready?
No matter what someone else is going through, no matter how much worse you think someone else might have it, you still have a right to every emotion that you feel about your own situation. Your experience is just that, it’s your experience, and it’s valid.
All the time people say things to me along the lines of, “Oh but I shouldn’t complain because it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through,” and it honestly makes me so uncomfortable. In no way do I have the monopoly on suffering. And in no way do I want it! It saddens me to think that people don’t want to tell me what’s going on in their lives because of what’s going on in my life. That’s not how human connections are supposed to work.
I believe in finding the good, yes. No matter how bad things seem, I believe that there is always good to be found, but I do not believe that just because there is good to be found, just because things could be worse, that you can’t acknowledge the problems you’re facing, as well. It’s not realistic, and it’s not helpful. In fact it’s the opposite of helpful, because only by fully facing a situation, the good and the bad, can we figure out what we need to make it better and what we need to help us through.
The truth is, it could always be worse. And there will always be people out there who have it worse than us.
But we still deserve the chance for things to be better.
Context is of course important. Time, place and audience are everything. If you’re terrified of needles and you have to get your flu vaccine, freaking out to your friend who just underwent a major surgery probably won’t elicit a very compassionate response. Sometimes life is so overwhelming that it limits our ability to support someone else. Sometimes we become jaded by our own experiences. Because we are all individuals shaped by our own individual pasts, memories, support systems, personalities and perspectives, we will never have the exact same experience as someone else. We all go through the same things differently. What’s hard for you might be no big deal for another person, but that doesn’t invalidate your fear or your struggle.
At the end of the day, all of this leads to opportunities for empathy. Recognizing what others are going through doesn’t discredit what we’re going through ourselves, but it does give us a window into their lives, and it does give us a chance to develop a new respect and understanding for each other.
We also have a chance to practice empathy when we are the ones in the subjectively worse situation.
I’ll be honest, when I see a Facebook status about a cold that is ruining someone’s life, my first instinct is to roll my eyes. They don’t know how easy they have it…but isn’t that a good thing? Do I really want them to know what I know about being sick? Of course I don’t. And begrudgingly, I can remember what it felt like when a cold showed up at the most inconvenient time. Even still, I can’t say I’m going to be the most sympathetic audience, but that’s on me, not them, and that doesn’t mean they’re not allowed to feel the way they feel.
I only know what I know. You only know what you know. We all only know what we know, what we’ve been through ourselves and what we’ve been through with the people close to us.
So we take what we know and do the best with what we have.
And we feel what we feel.
And we don’t need to feel bad about it.