Friday, February 25, 2005

Misery Olympics

I was just sitting around chatting with my husband the other night about the issue du jour on some of the blogs I enjoy. When I gave my husband the set-up, he responded immediately with exactly the same thoughts that I have on the whole hoolabaloo.

Me, beaming: "Wow! Noone else said exactly that same thing, and that's just exactly what I think! I knew I married you for a good reason."

Him, pointedly: "Well, that just goes to show you should spend less time involved in those internet-y discussions and more time talking to me."

Me, getting his point, although I said: "Well, discussions aren't always as much fun when you agree on everything. But it is too bad when everyone gets all upset over the disagreement."

Him: "Well, that just goes to show that you just shouldn't talk to people."
Continue reading...

Once again my beloved curmudgeon of a husband cuts straight to the heart of the problem. Talking to people is hard. We are always saying hurtful things with the best of intentions. We talk to connect to one another, but often end up alienating one another instead. And in talking to one another, we cannot help but compare their experiences with our own. We are, at heart, supremely self-centered beings. I don't mean that in a necessarily derogatory manner, and I do think that in our best moments we do try to be empathetic creatures. But the sad fact is that none of us is completely able to understand the feelings of another--there's no vulcan mind-meld available to simplify the process of trying to understand.

But still we do talk to one another. Or we write things, and wait for a response from somebody, somewhere. Mostly what we wait for is a positive response, truth be told. And mostly what we write about are our difficulties, and our pain. Even if we write about it with a light-hearted tone and even if we acknowledge that, really it's not such a big deal but gee wouldn't it be nice if DD could just master the potty sometime before she graduates high school? And mostly what we end up getting back is, "Yeah, I know. My DD just finished her Ph.D. and I'm still buying those night-time pull-ups and calling to make sure she remembered to wipe every day." There's something about upping the conversational ante by pulling out your own experience, which was oh-so-much-worse, that is just irresistible to us. I mean, imagine the same conversation above, but instead of responding with the story of Dr. Skidmarks, instead you get someone who says. "Oh, I'm sorry, dear. My DD was potty-trained shortly after her first birthday. You just have to be firm, you know." Ugh. What a killjoy. I can guarantee that that conversation is going nowhere.

Eventually, though, we're going to start talking about something much more emotionally fraught than potty training (although that is really pretty darn fraught when you're holding yet another pair of pooped up undies in your hand). Eventually we start talking about our depression, our battle with cancer, and our children's pain. And suddenly responses that "up the ante" just aren't the same anymore. Suddenly those comments start to feel agressive, as if they are belittling your pain. And sometimes those comments really are agressive, and really are belittling your pain. Sometimes they take the form of, "You're kidding me, right? You have no idea what pain is. Here's what I've gone through. So shut up." Or sometimes those comments are more well-intentioned and take the form of, "Hey. It can get sooooo much more worse. So get a bit of perspective and count your blessings, OK?" It becomes the Olympics of Misery, with story after story, each one more horrifying than the last.

The first approach, I'll call it the "Shut Up" approach, is just completely useless and mean. But there aren't that many people out there who have the cajones to take this full-on in your face attitude. The second, I'll call it "Shucks, just here to help," is rampant. Actually this approach is just the first approach prettied up some, but I do believe that it can come from a well of good intentions. But really "Shucks, just here to help" is no more helpful than "Shut Up."

The main problem, which many have noted, with this sort of "perspective-adjustment" is that it seems to lead to the conclusion that noone is allowed to feel pain as long as there is some way the situation could be worse. And that's just not reasonable, is it? I guess one could argue that there is some place along the pain spectrum at which the situation is bad enough that it warrants a bit of bitch and moan, but I can't for the life of me think who would be qualified to make that cut.

Most of the time my own perspective adjustment is coming from my own personal constant internal evaluation, that little voice that picks apart every moment of our lives and examines it for any tasty nuggets of Life Wisdom. We humans are these odd creatures, the range of our emotions mostly defined by our own experience and just not good at all at figuring out how to feel based on someone else's experience. In my own life, I remember that first blood draw on my daughter at 4 weeks, and it was absolutely horrible. The worst feeling I had ever felt in the world at that time. Within a year, we had gone to a place so much more horrible that that blood draw seems ridiculous now. We still go for blood draws on a weekly basis, and they're no big deal now.

So I have found a new perspective, but I suspect that much of that has to do with my own experiences. Still, isn't possible that we really are capable of learning from listening? I think it has happened to me, but only in my less emotional times, when things are going relatively well for me and my family. I certainly hesitate to think that I would use someone's life as an example of "At Least That's Not Me" to try to keep my own sun shining, but there are certainly times when someone is able to remind me to be grateful. The best example of my own perspective adjustment was from a total stranger, and she did it in just 4 words.

It happened like this: One day Annika and I were at the mall, and Anni wanted to play on the coin-operated rides right outside of Kohl's that function like the La Brea Tar Pits for Young Children--just try and drag them away from those little cars and trains with blinking lights that offer less motion than most infant swings (at 50 cents a pop). Luckily, Anni didn't actually need the stuff to be moving to have fun, and so I just sat down next to another mother to watch our kids clambering over the equipment. We started talking, as mothers always do to while away the massive amounts of time we spend just watching our offspring's every movement, and of course the subject of Annika's transplant came up. Now, usually when this comes up the other mom will gasp and say, "Oh my gosh! How have you all made it through all that? That must have been so hard!" etc. etc. But this mom, with her accent clearly placing her as a citizen of an African country, just said with all wonder and seriousness in her voice, "You are very lucky." And that was all that she said on the subject. But with those few words, I remembered that a large portion of the world does not even have access to basic health care for children, much less transplants. And even in those countries that do offer transplants, there are very many that have organ donor rates so low as to make a transplant for a child extremely unlikely.

And of course I know how lucky we are without having to be told on a daily basis. But it's nice to be reminded sometimes. In a non-aggressive fashion, of course.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Robyn said...

Thank you for putting this into words and also the link to the other post on the original site.

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