Because we live in a media saturated environment where all opinions are weighted equally until popularity makes one opinion greater than the other, one person greater than the other, we live in a time of poor relating.
Critical thinking and holding your tongue have always been hard for humans. Both require genuine effort. But today it seems as if no one is exercising either ability, so why bother trying it out ourselves?
Recently I attempted to help a friend by sharing my experiences and it resulted in a bad conversation for both of us. Fortunately for me it was just a bad conversation, but for her it was an exchange she carried with her to the end of the day and had to overcome by discussing with a more sympathetic partner.
It’s not the first time I’ve messed up my part of a relationship, and it’s most assuredly not going to be the last. But I’d like to share with you my personal list of no-nos when it comes to how we respond to those who are struggling.
- “I Win” — I’ve talked about this one before, but it’s any person who hears the issues of another person and says “that’s nothing, I…” and proceeds to illustrate that they’re better than you because of what they can handle and because of who they are now as a person. Winning is the one of the worst tendencies of childhood that gets translated to adults. I hear this one particularly when I say the words “I’m tired”. In our busy-ness oriented society “tired” is a key word to start winning the conversation.
- Full House Syndrome — This is my neat way of saying “wrap up the problem and put a bow on it.” It’s when someone tries to solve your problem in 30 minutes or less. It’s when people moralize your struggle “for the greater good” or tell you to “look on the bright side”. Neither of which are helpful. Though sometimes helpful is watching an actual episode of Full House.
- Cosmetic Sufferer — We disguise these as “First World Problems”. Or what I like to consider “inconveniences”. These crop up when I’m annoyed, and they build throughout the day. They’re not actual problems, just an excuse to be in a bad mood and complain to someone else for a little bit of unnecessary sympathy.
- Self-Inflicted — I have a good friend who does insane things like run 100 mile marathons and scream at mountain lions in the wild to make them go away. She’s incredible, really and I’m always awed by her approach to life. I’ve also appreciated that she doesn’t share a walking chronicle of her injuries that result from her constant harrowing activities. If you’re going to put yourself in harm’s way, on purpose, because you want to, and as a result –surprisingly– you got injured, don’t whine about it. If it was your idea to swim jellyfish infested waters naked for four hours, I don’t want to hear about how often you got stung and isn’t that just the worst. It is the worst because you’re an idiot, not because it happened.
- Any Opportunity — When I was a kid my sister got glasses. I was so jealous. I wanted glasses. Glasses were cool (she’s my older sister, everything she did was cool). So I lied about how I couldn’t see the chalkboard (yeah, I went to school when there were chalkboards). Truly I couldn’t see the chalkboard but it was because Kelly’s head was in the way. And then I proceeded to lie during the eye exam until I felt guilty and started telling the truth and didn’t get glasses until I was in my 20s and at college — not because I read too many books but because I watched movies on my laptop which was placed on my stomach as I lay in bed. Good times.
The prestige of having a problem is intoxicating. You wonder why there are high drama people in the world? Because having a problem gives meaning. It’s why we have hypochondriacs too, it’s validation. It means people have to listen when you talk.
A good way to tell if you’re a suffering opportunist is to ask yourself “did I consider this a personal problem before I heard someone talk about it?” Or did I perk up and think, “if I rationalize this, I’ve experienced the same thing!”
Being left out — even being left out of suffering — increases feelings of isolation, abandonment, uselessness. It’s natural to want to get in on the angst, it’s also bad for you as a person and bad for society.
- “I Understand” — I’m prone to this one especially. “I hear what you’re saying about getting kicked in the nuts and I totally know what that’s like as a woman because one time I…” If it hasn’t happened, you don’t know. If you didn’t struggle with it, you don’t know. You might have an idea, you might have heard other accounts, but “I understand” quickly takes all the power from the sufferer in terms of owning and experiencing their suffering in their own way. I’ve noticed that “I understand” is more prominent among white people, male people, and American Christians when it comes to a marginalized segment of society voicing frustration, fear, or concern. Let’s be clear on this. You can have all the facts, you can know the full history, and you still won’t have the experiences. You can’t know.
There are plenty of people who have a hard time living in this world because that’s what got handed to them upon their arrival in this world. Others got every benefit known to man and have encountered many challenges as a result of that “privilege” as well. Life affords every human challenges and obstacles. Everyone understands suffering in their own capacity.
So make sure you give people the chance to express it in their own capacity, give people the space to feel their hardships. Suffering is universal and pervasive and the least we can all do is recognize its presence without trying to moralize it or make it all about ourselves.