Whose Burden is Bigger? When Size Shouldn’t Matter


Ten years ago, I was the overwhelmed, under-rested, barely-bathed mother of newborn twins. Getting out of bed was a daily challenge, staying awake past 6 pm was even harder. So it was a rare and much-needed treat when my friend Wendy and my cousin Amy came over for dinner and a night of gabbing and girl-talk.

"You must be exhausted," Wendy clucked with compassion.

"I’m fine." I lied.

"How are you getting through the days?" Amy asked, her voice filled with rachmanos.

"It’s no problem." I braved.

"Ah, then the nights must be getting to you," Amy pressed.

"No, really, everything is great." I responded, fearing that my nose might start to grow any second.

What was wrong with me? Why wouldn’t I let my two closest companions in on my exhaustion, my fears and my worries that this might never get easier?

Because each of them had a burden that was much bigger than mine.

Two years before the three of us sat down to this dinner, Wendy had been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder that gave this vibrant, vivacious young woman the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating conditions that would elude remission for years.

One year before the three of us sat down to this dinner, Amy had been diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, an insidious form of skin cancer that would first rob her of her fertility before ultimately taking her life before she turned 30.

In what world was I entitled to complain about the burden of babies that Amy would never have or the temporary fatigue that was a permanent fixture in Wendy’s life?

In their world.

"You are entitled to your own pain." Amy assured me, after the truth serum known as "no sleep" had forced a confession from my lips. "My having cancer doesn’t mean that you aren’t suffering." And Wendy, as generous as Amy, agreed.

These two incredibly strong twenty-somethings gave me a perspective that today, at thirty-something, I still rely on in my own work and life, and am glad to share with both my family and my clients.

For many of us who pride ourselves on being glass-half-full people, our natural instinct is to look for the light in the darkness. When someone is suffering, we want to remind them of the joy in the world, the opportunity in the challenge, the hidden gift in the disappointment they are facing. But our "drill, baby, drill" approach to unearth something of value for them beneath their dark and murky reality represents our own need to make things okay, denying them their right to feel what they feel.

What does this sound like in practice? It often begins with these two words, "At least…"

"At least you have a job" (said to the person who is miserable at work, all day, every day.)

"At least you’re with somebody" (said to the person who is in an unsatisfying or damaging relationship.)

"At least it’s not cancer" (said to the person who is facing a frightening illness.)

These "at least" responses reflect the listener’s need to feel better, to change the mood, or to fast-track a perspective shift that may be premature, or might never come. What it neglects is the need of the person to experience his or her own sorrow, without being rushed or judged. Even the Midrash takes the bait: "Put all other sufferings in one side of the scale, and poverty in the other, and poverty would be heavier." In other words, "At least you’re not poor…" is meager comfort offered to someone who might be rich in dollars but in need of love, health, companionship, or even sleep.

When I work with clients who have suffered a disappointment or setback, I notice how often they rush to self-soothe. "I realize that not getting that job isn’t the end of the world" one might say with a stiff upper lip, where another client may claim, "I know I’m better off alone than with someone who didn’t really want to commit to me." My job (as sadistic as it might seem) is to acknowledge their willingness to shift into a happier perspective – and then to invite them back inside their pain for a while. Too many of us feel like we’re not entitled to mourn when others have greater losses, or that if we do grieve, we’ll never leave that dark place.

But you can be sad in the face of others’ sorrow, and you can lament your losses and find your way back out. And you don’t have to earn the right to do this – it’s the privilege you get from being willing to live life in all of its agony and glory.

Mary Ann Golomb wrote a poem, "Whose Pain is Worse" that appears on the Survivors’ Stories page of the Military Officers Association of America website.

It reads:

Whose pain is worse?
To me, mine is worse; to you, yours is worse.
But why do we compare?
I’m hurting and so are you.
Please allow me to have my pain and I will allow you to have yours.
Let me voice my anger and you can voice yours.
Let me release my guilt and you can release yours.
Let me cry on your shoulder and you can cry on mine.
Let me have my grief and I will let you have yours
And then, one day, let us smile and hug and thank each other for being there.

While I am lucky enough to smile and hug and thank my friend Wendy regularly and in person for being there through my pain and hers, I send my deepest gratitude to Amy wherever she is, believing in my heart of hearts that she is finally – and forever – pain-free.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at www.myjewishcoach.com or www.elevatedtraining.com. Read previous ‘Success’ columns here.