Is it possible, or even worthwhile, to rank your pain against the pain of others?
As social creatures, we often think and relate through a hierarchical lens. We conceptualize organizational hierarchy through formal positions. We conceptualize social hierarchy through influence. We conceptualize societal hierarchy through wealth or status. Everything seemingly has a rank, therefore everything can be compared against another in its same class according to said rank.
But is hierarchical thinking possible, even productive, when considering an individual’s psychological pain? We’ve heard the platitudes before: “There are starving people in __(insert African nation here)__.” “Just think about how much worse other people have it.” “Everything happens for a reason.”
This type of thinking may work for some, but it has not for me.
Years ago, when I completed my undergraduate degree and prepared to move to my first career-oriented job, I was a wreck. The melancholy associated with the separation from friends and loved ones. The anxiety of a unknown job. The insecurity accompanying living on my own for the first time. Several days before my departure, I broke into tears.
I tried being rational. “Scott, you’re privileged to have a college degree. You’re privileged to have a job. You’re privileged to have friend and family who love you. Think of all the people who may not be able to say the same. Stop being so selfish.”
I tried imagining others who may be struggling to pay for higher education. Who may be unemployed. Who may have a limited network of friends or family.
All of this rationalization and imagination netted me no psychological improvement. If anything, I was worse off because now I felt empathy for these imaginary individuals.
Through the years, I maintained this hierarchical view of pain in countless other situations, with similar disappointing results. It wasn’t until my wife and I experienced several pregnancy losses that I finally understood that pain is not comparable.
How could I compare our multiple losses to a family with a single loss and believe it is any more or less difficult a burden to bear? How could I try to rank our pain against a family who has lost a grown child to illness or accident? Furthermore, how could I begin to weigh the perceived merits (or lack thereof) of my pain when compared to someone else’s pain related to job loss, or hunger, or addiction?
My attempts to categorize my pain as more or less significant than another’s only increased my pain.
I recognize now that, as a social creature, I may often conceptualize my experiences through hierarchies, but when it comes to pain, I must rely on a different natural instinct inherent to social creatures; I must come together with others, have us acknowledge one another’s pain without judgement, and simply be there as a support.
Pain is pain. We have a human right to feel it. The fallacy emerges when we feel the need to compare it.
Image credit: Ben Sutherland/flickr