Photo: Nipapun Jiranukul - CC0
Photo: Nipapun Jiranukul - CC0

At a dinner table, a chap complains about 9am meetings with team members on the other side of the country, and how these early morning meetings, every workday for a year, feel draining and endless. A women is indignant at the chap’s hardship, and mentions her hour long commute in the mornings, followed by an hour commute in the evenings, often working ten hour days. Yet another lad, not to be outdone in complaints about work, challenges them all with how he must be at the station yard, every morning at 5am, prepared to drive bus routes for the remainder of his day with its constant flow of thankless commuters. We often exemplify our hardships in regards to our careers, sometimes to the extent of suggesting that our friends don’t have it as bad as we do.

It’s an odd game we play with each other. Sometimes we do lift each other up, praising our friends’ work choices and contributions to society. But more often than not, when we list our complaints, others counter with their own, as if the increased hardship of our day-to-day lives is somehow a badge of honor of how difficult our current circumstances can be. We may refuse to give others sympathy, let alone empathy, because we might simply think that they need to “suck it up.”

Wade: Rough childhood?
Vanessa: Rougher than yours. Daddy left before I was born.
Wade: Daddy left before I was conceived.
Vanessa: Ever had a cigarette put out on your skin?
Wade: Where else do you put one out?
Vanessa: I was molested.
Wade: Me too. Uncle.
Vanessa: Uncles. They took turns.
-Deadpool (2016, Film)

It’s one thing to get in a race-to-the-bottom discussion with some random person at a bar, but it’s very different to hear it from a friend. When we explain our problems or situation to people we trust, we often get a response that indicates either sympathy or empathy. What people often don’t realize is that sympathy tends to divide us. Though we don’t intend it to, when we append the words “at least,” in an attempt to show that the situation could be worse, we belittle the very real troubles that our friends are going through.

“Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. Rarely, if ever, does an emphatic response begin with, ‘At least’ … And we do it all the time … Someone shared something with us and we’re trying to ‘silver lining’ it. ‘I think my marriage is falling apart.’ ‘At least you have a marriage.’ … If I share something with you that’s very difficult, I’d rather you say ‘I don’t even know what to say, I’m just glad you told me.’ Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better.” -Brené Brown1

We do our friends and even our acquaintances a great disservice by responding that their lives could be worse. We say that things are “not that bad.” But I feel what can drag people even further down is comparing relative hard situations, in an attempt to discredit the difficulties of someone else. For example, a mother who shares the difficulty of having a husband that is away up to two weeks every month, being belittled by women who are single parents and must raise children by themselves everyday. An accountant who struggles to find time to spend with his or her children juxtaposed to a barista who struggles to bring home enough money to buy food and school supplies.

“…here’s the thing: Hard is not relative. Hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone you’ve just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your five-year-old you’re getting a divorce? There is no harder, there is just hard. We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse … and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard.” -Ash Beckham2

When we criticize others for their lives not being as difficult as our current struggles, we engage in a race to the bottom of humanity. We are saying that with all our advances in technology, our millions of books, blog posts, and anti-war protests, advocating compassion and love for every fellow human being, we are still quick to criticize those who have it easier, instead of examining how we got stuck in the situation that made our lives worse. We repeat that mantra our parents told us about how, “Life isn’t fair,” without questioning, with all that we have today, why can’t we make life fair? How did we ever get tricked into accepting unfairness instead of rising up and fighting against it?

“Who are we to say what’s hard enough to talk about? Where is the judge that says ‘yep, that’s bad enough that it can be talked about’? Who gets to decide what’s hard? When someone steps out and talks about their hard battle, they should not be ridiculed for not having it ‘hard enough’. And, most importantly, their hard time does not negate the battles that others are fighting. … My story does not negate your story.” -Amanda, Dirt and Boogers3

I remember being in a park where I watched a father calming down his crying toddler. The child had hurt himself, and the father said caringly, yet slightly sarcastically, “..It’s alright. I know. Life is so hard.” The momentary struggles of a child, cared for by nurturing and attentive parents, ready to step in should any tasks become to difficult or dangerous, is something that many adults may secretly long for during the times in our lives when our very real struggles seem insurmountable.

Some of us have learned to guard ourselves and hide our emotions. We fear exposing very difficult parts of our lives, only to be offered tea and sympathy instead of a real emotional connection. Trying to point out positives in a difficult situation may come with the best of intentions, but it rarely helps our friends. Treating someone’s problems as trivial or insignificant is dismissive. Comparing their struggles to our own only leads us to a path of a cold, calculated, game of ranks and numbers.

The empathetic gap is one that grows in our society because we struggle to learn how to listen. As two lovers can be enamored in their happiest moments, just by being in each other’s presence, so too can our deepest sorrows feel a little less overwhelming when our friends simply open their hearts. Kindness, touches, hugs and even polite silence can make a loved one feel a little less alone.

Wisdom is knowing that we cannot make the entire world right; that a mother’s ability to chase away the pain with a flick of the light or a watchful eye does not suffice when we are overwhelmed by the sheer weight of life. All we can do is fill our hearts with the love and compassion we would wish upon ourselves in our darkest nights, knowing that it certainly won’t be enough to overcome the mountains of troubles hurled upon us throughout our lives. Sometimes all our friends need to know is that we tried to reach down and find that place inside us where we can connect with their pain on a level deeper than simply knowing their name, like arms wrapped around lost souls in a forest in the pouring rain.

Eventually, the clouds will part. The rain will fade away, and those who were so much afraid will be able to see the sun rise again. And when that time comes when the weight of the world is lifted from them, all we can hope for is that we helped them, simply by being a friend.

  1. Brené Brown on Empathy. 10 Dec 2013. The RSA. (Video) 

  2. Ash Beckham: We’re all hiding something. Let’s find the courage to open up. September 2015. Beckham. TEDxBoulder. 

  3. My Life Is Harder Than Yours, Get Over It. Amanda. Dirt and Boogers. Retrieved 5 June 2017.