My Pain is Greater Than Your Pain

Dear Seafarer,

As promised. I wanted to keep up with writing at least one blog post per week. No matter how short it is, I must write.

Today, I want to talk about personal demons.

Have you ever been told to “get over it”, “suck it up”? Have you ever been told to be grateful, that at least your situation is “not as bad as X” (where-in X is the unfortunate individual who never asked to be compared with you but whose apparently worser circumstances is now being used to make you feel better). Have you ever been accused of being “lazy” because you are overweight? Or that you have “all the opportunity in the world, so you have no reason to fail?”

This is going to be a slightly challenging post to write, because it can sound like I am justifying a sense of entitlement, or that I am advocating for one’s right to remain complacent.

However, please hear me out, and I shall hopefully communicate the delicate balance between being “grateful”, not “trying hard enough”, and having a sense of respect for personal battles.

I recall having a conversation with a lovely friend, someone so wonderful and grounded, that she sometimes gets overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude. To her, happiness is in the small things. Being able to breathe. Being able to eat. Being able to have an education. In her own words, “What more could I ask for?” She had an interesting theory that sadness and depression is born from the luxury of having the time to think about things. If you were simply doing what you needed to do, and focusing on the task at hand, you wouldn’t have time to wallow in your feelings. Less thinking, more doing, hence less sadness.

As a child, I was also frequently told that I was very fortunate. I had a father who could provide for me, a comfortable home, and all the opportunities I needed for success. More than once, I was cited cases of people suffering in third-world countries, who had to eat “grass” to survive, and various other stories of poverty on the far end of the spectrum.

“So remember. There are kids in Africa who are starving with no chance at education. This kid who had to help his/her father at their family hawker stall is now doing medicine. There is no excuse for someone as lucky as you.”

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that gratitude is a beautiful thing. I like my friend’s philosophy on being able to appreciate the small things in life. I think that the less you need, the happier and lighter you get. I also believe that focusing on the present, and keeping busy has its merits, even if it is a temporary solution to deeper issues. I understand that my friend may be referring to moving forward in life; because sometimes that is the only way to heal, and to get better. It is not an inherently flawed theory.

Consequently, I also have nothing against being exposed to suffering. I think it is important to be aware of the harsher realities of life. It can be a sobering reminder of how fortunate we can be, and of the opportunities we have been blessed with. One must not live in a bubble-wrapped world.

However, here lies the crucial difference:

An awareness of your privilege should be used to check yourself, not to guilt yourself. Telling someone that they have “no excuse for failure, or that they should be happy because they have X,Y or Z” is like saying that people have no right to feel sad, to struggle, to fail, because of certain things they possess.

Using a “worse than, better than” statement can also imply that individual pain can be quantified and compared on equal grounds. Clearly, to a starving child in a poverty-stricken country, food is an immediate priority, and hence an immediate blessing. However, to someone living in less extreme conditions, priorities in the hierarchy of needs will logically shift to accommodate their personal circumstances. To”normal” people, having secured basic needs, the natural progression would be to work out existential issues. Just because I’m not struggling for food, it doesn’t mean that the emotional distress I experience is any less painful.

I recall feeling depressed at one point. I had lost all interest in studying, and I was near the point of giving up with myself. I had let myself go, and I lacked the motivation I needed to pull myself together. Everything seemed pointless. The future meant nothing to me. I wanted to die. I hated school. I was unbearably lonely. I was crying every day, and I didn’t understand why.

My well meaning parents advised me to keep studying. If I had studied hard, everything would fall into place. I should be grateful that I had everything. I had no reason to be depressed.

Somehow, being told that I had no reason to be depressed made it even worse. Focusing on my studies was clearly the logical step, but it felt like something was broken deep down inside me, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. As a result, I couldn’t bring myself to study. Because of that, I resented myself even more. I thought I was weak. I bashed myself up internally. I would wake up every day whispering, “I hate myself.”

You cannot force gratitude. You certainly aren’t going to get anywhere near feeling grateful, if you’re half stewing in resentment for yourself, for feeling a certain way in the first place. It is counter-productive. Rather than teach someone to feel guilty over their feelings, teach them how to deal with these feelings, as they come, in the most constructive manner possible.

Yes, I feel upset. Why am I feeling upset? And what can I do about it?

We all have our demons. It is important to respect our internal battles, and the internal battles of others.

To somebody suffering from social anxiety, looking for a job requires immense bouts of courage. To someone who has never experienced loneliness, sitting alone at lunch can be terrifying. To someone with depression, going out of the house is an ongoing struggle. To someone who has been overweight their whole life, going to the gym might mean having to battle a slew of judgment and stigma. You cannot quantify pain without comprehending the journey the individual has walked.

You get my meaning.

We are complex human beings. We feel. We respond and react to things. We have irrational fears. Sometimes, we cry for no reason, laugh for no reason.

You are allowed to fail. You are allowed to struggle. You are allowed to feel upset.  You are allowed to have a bad day.

…and you don’t need to be a starving child in a poverty-stricken country to experience each of these.

With that, dear seafarer, no matter what your circumstances or blessings are in life, I hope you forgive yourself for struggling. I hope gratitude becomes a natural state of being, not a forced reminder. And along with that, I hope you find it within yourself to keep walking forward.

Take care.

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