A building in Mostar, the most divided and destroyed city in Bosnia,
as seen out the bus window on my trip to the former Yugoslavia in 2005.
When does someone’s pain become worthy of compassion and attention?
Grace here. When I was in college, I was studying international relations with an emphasis in conflict resolution. What that means is that all day I was essentially studying international conflicts and how well the resolutions did or didn’t work. I was watching documentaries about the Rwandan Genocide and was writing my senior thesis on the African Union’s response to the conflict (I’d say Genocide) in Darfur. I had spent a semester in the former Yugoslavia learning about “the most successful peace agreement” aka the Dayton Accord but all I saw on the ground was where it had fallen short. The bullets had stopped but things were far from great on the ground ten years later.
I found myself drowning in the pain of the world. I wasn’t sleeping well. Honestly, I was pretty depressed. I had compassion fatigue. I was unhappy with my personal life. I was struggling with having to quit swimming yet again. I was worried about my mom’s health. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation even though I was planning to graduate a year early. I felt lonely at school, like I didn’t have many friends and a whooooole lot of my limiting beliefs were shouting at me all the time. I was miserable.
To make matters worse, I was feeling guilt about how bad I felt. I kept telling myself things like “who am I to be sad about xyz when there are Bosnian orphans basically being pimped out as beggars and thousands of women are being raped in the Sudan? Compared to their lives, mine is peachy. Where do I get off feeling so down?” Really compassionate, I know. (There’s a reason my dad suggested I take his Taming the Bear class after I graduated.) In Buddhism they have a parable about the second arrow and this is exactly what I was doing. I’ll write more about that idea another day but basically I was shot with the first arrow in feeling how I felt about my life and then I was shooting myself with a second arrow by beating myself up for feeling that way.
One day, I was walking from my room in The Peace House to class after an all nighter writing a paper, undoubtedly about death and destruction. I don’t remember how the thought came to me, although I think a conversation with my often wise older sister Becca may have planted a seed. Anyway, I was walking down College Street with my hands in my backpack straps and the words “It doesn’t have to be genocide before it is important” popped into my head.
It’s one of those life revelations that has (obviously) stuck in my head. I think about it all the time. And I talk to my clients and students about it all the time. Comparing the source of our pain is a dangerous game. To feel pain is, I think, quite human. We feel the lows so that we can feel the highs. We experience the whole gamut of emotions. Understanding the source of our emotions is important to our personal growth but it does not dictate the validity of what we feel, nor our right to feel it.
What I mean by that is that we are all here with the opportunity to grow and learn more about ourselves. Some of us may live through the conflict in Darfur and others may be studying about it. Both may be struggling with their emotions around it. Saying that one person’s pain is more valid than the other is just a way of minimizing the painful experience. If someone feels something then that feeling is valid. End of story. We all have the right to our feelings. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a client share a horrific story, only to minimize their pain by saying that so and so had it worse for xyz reasons. If we start playing the comparison game, where do we stop? When does someone’s pain become worthy of compassion and attention?
Instead, I suggest we all think about it the other way: that all pain is worthy of compassion. When you notice yourself starting down that road of comparison, I invite you to get curious about what part of you is trying to avoid the pain.
- What part of you wants to minimize your experience?
- What are you protecting yourself from?
- What would it be like to allow yourself to feel it?
- What do you know about the part of you that feels unworthy of your own feelings?
- Where does that resistance come from?
Won’t all this compassionate curiosity move you through the pain more effectively than feeling guilty about feeling the pain you already feel anyway? It did for me. Learning The Seven Tools of Healing helped me learn to honor my own pain and to find a way through it that respected my own journey.
Now when I catch myself thinking I don’t deserve to feel the way I do or that someone else has it worse than I do, I remind myself that that is a way to avoid the pain of feeling what I am feeling. I reground myself in compassionate accepting awareness of layers of the present moment. I recognize the avoidance tactic and feel compassion for it and its attempts to shield me for my pain. And I hold as much of the pain as I am capable of in that moment, honoring its presence in my day and getting curious about what I can learn about myself from it.
If you find yourself getting caught in that comparison game, I encourage you to learn more about The Seven Tools or talk to your therapist or loved ones about it.
Remember, your pain is valid. Full stop. It doesn’t have to be genocide before it is important.