My Pain is Bigger Than Yours
When you experience hardships, do you share it with everyone or keep it to yourself? Do you consider it a private event only to be shared with your coach, therapist and best friend? Or do you consider it responsible, helpful and useful to share your painful experiences with the world at large?
When it comes to how we frame our pain, I have lived to experience two diametrically opposed cultural phenomena and I’m dedicated to creating an alternative to both. A third door that leads to more unity and less of the unhelpful one-upmanship that colors our present day culture.
Many of us grew up in a time that encouraged the proverbial stiff upper lip and the application of the keep calm and carry on ethos to any painful life event. We learned that if something bad happened to us or our family, it was best to not speak about it - certainly not publicly.
It was considered vulgar and a betrayal of one’s family to openly speak about one’s pain. In retrospect, It’s easy to understand how this ethos nurtured individual and collective shame. It was certainly my own personal experience but I’m confident this way of being in the world was not unique to my family or culture; it was simply woven into the fabric of the times.
Today, I’m observing a 180-degree change in the public framing of our trauma. Not only is it acceptable, but it’s entirely encouraged to share it with any person, group or community we choose. This modern phenomenon, one Maria Popova calls “a culture of competitive trauma,” is the oil that lubricates the relentless engine of social media.
If shame was an unintended byproduct of the old culture of hiding our trauma, a novel and cloaked kind of narcissism is currently the unfortunate result of our relentless effort to show others that our pain is bigger than theirs.
In the Netflix series, Jaguar, about a group of post Holocaust Nazi hunters, the writer takes the risk of including a joke about two men who each died in a different concentration camp and are in heaven arguing about which one’s camp was the most terrible. God intervenes to remind them that they’re already dead and can now finally rest in peace. The men dismiss God by saying that he has no right to an opinion because he wasn’t there.
Of course, this is not a joke. Understandably, so many survivors share this belief. And perhaps there is no appropriate place for a joke about the most shameful and incomprehensible chapter of human history, but humor is scientifically recognized as an effective tool for dealing with devastating emotions.
A nuance of this exchange between God and the two men is a prescient commentary of our present culture. The belief that our particular misfortune and tragedies make us unique and that others who “were not there” can’t understand it, leads to a telling and retelling of our story that crosses the line from vulnerable sharing for the sake of connection to leveraging our trauma for the sake of attention.
So many young (and not so young) adults are regularly vying for the imaginary award given to whoever has endured more suffering and injustice. If one has led a life that either did not include extraordinary mistreatment and misfortune, or perhaps it did and they just don’t want to share it with everyone, somehow they have not earned the right to be a legitimate member of the awakened community. The older generation, of which I’m a part of, is either jumping into the ring with a sense of liberation after a lifetime of keeping things inside or standing at a distance wagging a judgemental finger. Neither stance is helpful.
Maybe if I had not coached hundreds of folks of all ages, I would not know the following truth.
Every single one of us - regardless of our external circumstances, quality of health, and amount of wealth - has dealt with some level of trauma. And without exception, life has or will serve us our own unique flavor of shit sandwich.
All around us, there are quietly heroic human beings who have endured unspeakable tragedies and choose to not participate in the Trauma Olympics. This is a race they do not want to win.
If you believe like I do that we all have our share of good and bad in life, how can we communicate and connect in a way that is helpful to ourselves and useful, even inspiring, to others?
I don’t have a definitive answer. But I sense that the way forward will have to be decided by each of us thoughtfully and humbly asking ourselves the question, “What have I learned from this painful experience that if shared, might be helpful even if to only one person other than myself?” Sharing for the sake of venting, revenge, and re-victimization is not helpful to others and only holds us back from becoming wiser as a result of our difficult experiences. Sharing those experiences in an appropriate context with the intention of connecting, inspiring and supporting others who are facing similar challenges is always a good decision.
I hope we can all be part of a more compassionate and nuanced culture of meaningful sharing, deep listening, and the realization that we are all on the same path.
Every single one of us is trying to figure out this thing called life and each person’s pain, trauma and misfortune can be held with equal acknowledgement, respect and compassion.