She wanted to talk to me about cancer, but she hesitated. She was worried because she thought her cancer wasn’t as bad as mine. When I finally realized the reason for the hesitation, for the trepidation in her voice, my heart dropped.
She had just apologized because she thought her cancer wasn’t bad enough. No one should ever have to do that.
It hurts to think I might have given that impression, but I know it’s not just me. This issue of comparison is part of our culture. We compare cars, houses, job titles, the behavior of our kids, and even our pain.
Comparing pain is insidious
We are measured against others throughout our lives (what is a Bell curve, anyway?), but at the same time we are cautioned against comparing wealth and power, and warned against envy and conceit. But when it comes to comparing pain, it’s actively endorsed. ‘Don’t feel bad, there are children in [insert third world nation that it is currently en vogue to pity] who have it so much worse than you.’ Comparing pain is deeply ingrained in our culture.
Don’t feel bad, we say.
Here’s another way to look at that: In the act of trying to console someone that way, we’re actually invalidating their pain. We’re attaching shame to the pain, and yes, that makes everything worse. No one should feel shame for experiencing pain. I don’t care if they just stubbed their toe, that shit hurts and comparing it to a brain tumor doesn’t make it hurt less.
Pity is not compassion
Also, a point about pity. Pity is condescending and dehumanizing, whether it is directed at someone on the other side of the world, or your next door neighbor. It others, creating or deepening the “us and them” perspective, and moving us further away from compassion and connection.
A few years ago, Brené Brown said that “Comparative suffering corrodes compassion and connection. It makes us judgmental and critical. Belittling our own suffering doesn’t elevate the suffering of others. It throws us into a ‘race for the bottom.’ It disconnects us from the truth that we are all inextricably connected – we all have strength and we all have struggle. We all need and we all give.“
I’ve seen the truth of that.
Your pain is valid
Whatever it is, your pain is valid. It is worthy of your attention. It is worthy of acknowledgement. It doesn’t matter if someone else has a different pain, or something some might consider to be a worse pain. You have pain. Deluding yourself, or trying to make excuses or rationalizing why you shouldn’t be experiencing pain won’t make it go away.
I heard a quote some years ago that has stuck with me over time. I have no idea who said it, and since I can’t remember the exact wording, I’m having trouble hunting down the source, but here it is in essence: telling yourself your pain is invalid because someone had it worse than you is the same thing as telling yourself your joy is invalid because someone had it better than you.
Avoiding toxic positivity
There is a cult of positivity in our culture as well – Suck it up. Paste on a smile. Hang in there. Fake it till you make it – And there are times and places for this approach. But positivity that is dismissive and forces delusion is toxic. We all need a place, a person, something somewhere that will allow us to let down our guard and get real.
Glennon Doyle once wrote, “You know, what strikes me is how desperately we all need to know that we are seen and heard. We don’t need our lives to be different, or easier, we just need someone to see the pain. To know what we’ve faced and overcome. To say: Yes. I see this. This is real. We don’t need a magician to take it all away – we just need a witness.”
When someone opens their heart, chances are they don’t need someone to come rushing in to fix everything, they don’t need delusions, they need a compassionate ear, they need a chance to release their story.
Some things have to be released before we can be free of them, or at least get up and move forward. Sometimes we have to acknowledge we have a problem before we can get help. Sometimes we just need permission to feel our own pain without shame.
Have you ever watched little kids make friends? It blows me away with it’s simplicity and straightforwardness. They just run up and start playing together. No introductions necessary. No concern over who lives in what kind of house, or wears designer labels, or whose mom drives what kind of car. Shame and embarrassment and comparison? All that comes later. Much too soon, sadly.
In the meantime, I’m learning from this kind of authenticity.
This is my daughter and her cousin, caught up in “I’m so happy to be here with you, I just wanna hold your hand.”
I am happy. Right now. This minute while I’m typing these words.
It’s a little odd, I think, how seldom I recognize my own joy in the moment. I remember having been happy, but I seldom stop and think: “Wow. I’m really happy right now.” For me, the camera plays into the equation. I can really get lost in a moment with my camera, light, shadow, colors, movement, texture, and a certain twinkle in the eye. I can get lost in my happy little image world and have a perfectly lovely time. Hours, days, or even weeks later, as I’m editing the photos, I discover just how awesome the event really was.
Embracing Right Now
Life is full of beautiful moments, moments where the beauty is not in the image, but in the experience. Sometimes I let myself think that a moment must be documented to be real or precious. Not true. Building memories is important, but the initial experience is more important than each time it’s remembered.
Sometimes, I have to just put the camera down, and join the party myself. Even better – hand the camera over to someone else and let them capture me in the moment.
I still enjoy photography, but I have to remember not to let it replace interacting with my friends and family.
What about you? What can you do to embrace right now?
I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls Collective, and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.
We officially head into summer this week, and flowers are blooming all around us.
These photos were taken last weekend on my retreat to Harmony Hill on Hood Canal. I have so much to say about that retreat, but I’m still processing. I’ll write something up when I’m ready (Update: here it is).
When it comes to food and travel, whenever possible I like to eat where the locals eat, tourist traps rarely have the best food. I have also come to believe that Alton Brown will never steer me wrong when it comes to food. Both of those rules turned out to be true on this my trip to New Orleans.
I didn’t have a big list of things to do in New Orleans because I was bringing my homework along with me (yeah, this girl knows how to par-tay), but I was not going to leave that city without tasting a beignet.
World famous fried dough, topped with powdered sugar, and served up with cafe au lait? Carbs on top of deep-fried carbs? Served with coffee? What’s not to love? That was definitely first on my list.
The first name in beignets, is Cafe du Monde. It’s world famous. Mention New Orleans, and people who have never set foot in Louisiana will tell you to go to Cafe du Monde. I was going to Cafe du Monde if it was the only thing I did in New Orleans.
Luckily it wasn’t the only thing I did in New Orleans.
My friend, Jen, did her homework before our trip, including watching The Best Think I Ever Ate: New Orleans. “We have to go to Cafe Beignet!” She insisted. “Alton said it was the best thing he ate in New Orleans.”
How lucky I am to travel with someone like Jen who can straighten me out on these things – I might have missed Cafe Beignet altogether.
Hidden away amongst antique shops and art galleries in the French Quarter, I might have stumbled across this little gem, but I might have also been saving up my caloric allowance for the beignets at a shop with more name recognition. How sad that would have been.
I would have missed this lovely french cafe, with it’s menu that goes well beyond pastries, jazz from the street musicians wafting in on the breeze, the cobblestone floors, and the charming little birds that flitted around as we ate.
I would have missed the subtle flavor and delicate texture of these little pillows of heaven.
I fully intended to get a shot of these as they were delivered – both times we visited – but it just didn’t happen. I dug in. Yum.
We hadn’t even finished the first beignet when we decided we needed to hit Cafe du Monde as well – same day – so we could do a little comparison. Also, so we could have more beignets and coffee (but lets just keep that between us, ok?)
We had to walk several blocks farther, through Jackson Square, to get to Cafe du Monde. Surely that was enough walking to burn off all those carbs… No?
Cafe du Monde was a completely different environment.
It was packed, there were street musicians as well, right next to the table seating, but the music that pulsed in was more aggressive and in your face (perhaps intended to keep customers from lingering too long?). Pigeons dive-bombed tables, and snacked fearlessly from tables in the middle of this crowded restaurant.
The food the server plopped down in front of us was a little different as well.
The beignets were hard, and flavorless.
But at least they had sugar. A lot of sugar.
Once we finished eating the beignets, there was a good 4 ounces of sugar still left on the plate. Thank goodness we decided to share that order.
I will say in Cafe du Monde’s favor, that I preferred their coffee.
But for beignets, (and other foods, we found out at later visits), and ambiance, I’d recommend Cafe Beignet over and over again.
Alton Brown was right. So was the Concierge. Thanks, Jen.