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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

Comparative Suffering

As the shelter in place order is extended and the number of confirmed cases (and deaths) continues to rise in Texas and around the U.S., many of you are sharing with me that you are “hitting the wall” in terms of endurance and capacity, and in some cases, quite literally (which leaves a hole in the sheetrock, so you may want to invest in a punching bag instead!) Our survival system is geared for an immediate threat, like an oncoming car, or finding a snake on the porch, or two bear cubs in the chicken coop (which happened to my sister recently in Anchorage, Alaska.  Sadly neither the chickens, nor the coop, survived) After the immediate threat is resolved, our brain stem re-sets to its pre-threat level and our nervous system is restored to a state of equilibrium.  In the face of an ongoing crisis, our nervous system gets “stuck” in survival mode, and we begin to experience a sense of fatigue physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  There is no opportunity for a re-set as our alarm continually goes off in response to ongoing bad news about the shortage of personal protective gear for front line hospital workers, the specter of our health care system being overwhelmed and the prospect of having to get creative about bathroom habits as toilet paper continues to be in short supply.

Many of you are sharing your struggles of trying to homeschool children while also working from home, cut off from the usual support systems of day care/school/nannies/babysitters/grandparents, feeling isolated and frustrated about not having any support or the opportunity to go to your usual self-care options like the gym/massage/salon/library/park/coffee shop (drive thru only!)  Sometimes we try to shame ourselves out of the discouragement and self-pity we are feeling by telling ourselves that others have it so much worse:  we could be stranded on a cruise ship that is not allowed to come to shore!  We could lack clean water to even be able to wash our hands with!  People are dying!

Brene Brown, in her excellent podcast on Comparative Suffering, explains why this kind of shaming ourselves out of feeling bad doesn’t actually work.  When we are unable to have self-compassion, and acknowledge and validate that our own suffering matters, we cannot show empathy or care to others for their suffering either.  Our suffering matters because it is ours. The greatest loss is always ours.  I experienced this firsthand when my youngest daughter, Jessica, had to cancel her trip home to celebrate her birthday last month because the Army canceled leave for all soldiers.  I was SO disappointed.  It is difficult to get leave approved in the first place, and often involves changing airline tickets several times before plans are finalized.  I have learned not to actually believe Jess is coming home until she is standing in front of me. When her hard earned leave was cancelled, I kept telling myself this wasn’t such a big deal.  People are dying, I told myself.  But I realized this disappointment mattered because it was mine.  And then I had to allow myself to grieve this loss, this missed opportunity to celebrate with my precious daughter in person on her special day.

Your struggles and losses matter because they are yours.  They matter to you, to me, and to God.  Don’t try to minimize them by telling yourself others are “suffering more.”  When we acknowledge our pain, we make room to acknowledge the pain that others carry, and then we can all join with each other to carry it together.

You are not alone!  Even when it feels that way. 

Resources you might find helpful:

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