I wrote a post about the struggles of motherhood, those moments when the work becomes too much and we’ve got nothing left and we just want to quit the whole damn gig. Those moments when we’re really, really not “grateful.”
And in response, a woman wrote this (more or less): “A year ago around this time my 2-year-old died unexpectedly in her sleep. I’d give anything to experience the things you complain about, to get irritated at the noises and antics of my child. Why don’t you think about what it would feel like to lose those children you’re ranting about.”
Just for fun, click over and read the other comments left on that post.
You back? Cool.
39 mothers (and a stay-at-home-dad) commiserating about the harshness of this job of parenthood. 40 people who found a place to say the shit everybody’s thinking (well, lots of us at least) but nobody will admit because, well, I don’t know. We’re not supposed to, I guess.
I read her comment in the car and wanted to vomit. I was simultaneously filled with rage and sadness and piercing guilt. Even shame.
I didn’t publish the comment. I’m not exactly sure why. I thought she might be a troll (I mean what the hell was she doing on a parenting website while mourning the death of her child?), but I don’t think that was really it. It’s unlike me to censor somebody. In fact, that’s the only comment (besides troll name-calling (e.g. “You’re a slobbering vagina.”)) that I’ve deleted.
I really didn’t want to subject the 40 other commenters to her guilt-inducing wrath. It was like she had this flaming sword and could SLAUGHTER any parent in the world for the slightest hint of ungratefulness, in a few words. And holy shit, did it work.
I think that was a wrong choice. Nobody needs me to protect them. I should have published it. I won’t make that mistake again.
In hindsight, I imagine I deleted it because it struck some chord with me that I couldn’t handle.
I’ve thought about it a lot since then and I’ve realized I really, really hate that shit: You can’t complain about your job because people are unemployed.
You can’t bitch about pregnancy symptoms because some women can’t have children.
You can’t loathe motherhood occasionally because parents have lost children.
And come on, friend, stop talking about your pneumonia. People are dying of cancer.
You lost your dad? I lost BOTH parents (I didn’t actually, thank god). You’re 20 pounds overweight? I’m 40. You’re poor. I’m more poor. Unemployed for 3 months? It’s been 6 for me. And on and on.
Somebody can always, always one-up your problems. And you know what? They’re fucking right. It’s true. It’s 100% true that I should be grateful for the fact that I can conceive children. I should be grateful for the fact that none of them have been ripped from my yearning hands. And I should be grateful I’m alive, and my parents and family are alive (mostly), and nobody is facing a terminal illness (that we know of).
And guess what. I AM GRATEFUL. But I’m not grateful all the time. I’m not some freaking guru.
I am also beat sometimes, by them and me and my life, just as it stands, as glorious and beautiful as it is. Sometimes I fall into a depression. Sometimes I’m full of self-pity and agony and pain and I’m not even sure why it’s there. It’s real. It’s life.
And THAT is why the problem one-upping thing is so fucking irritating and a complete waste of time: Because it doesn’t WORK.
It is 100% ineffective in actually reducing pain.
When I am depressed, or terrified, or tired of being broke, no amount of mental chanting “But some people have it worse” reduces my pain for more than a minute or two. Ultimately, no mental construct – no new idea – will pull me through my darkness.
If you think about it, the pain one-upping could just go on forever. There is always somebody “worse off” than you…what about those women locked in the Castro house? What about people who lose their whole families in car accidents? What about people trapped in abusive marriages living in countries that don’t give a shit? Should we talk about Ethiopia? Starvation? Sex slavery? Come on. We could do this all day. There is always, always a “worse” situation.
So ultimately, where do we land? If we take this one-upping as far as I goes, we end up at “No pain means anything. No pain deserves treatment. No pain matters.” And that, my friends, is completely ridiculous.
Why? Because this pain is real. It does matter. It’s happening, isn’t it?
THIS is where I am in my journey. What good is pretending I’m not in pain just because I should be more enlightened or insightful or deep or appreciative? I should be a better person, capable of focusing on my blessings. I should be blah blah freaking blah.
I should, BUT I’M NOT.
Maybe my pain is ridiculous. Maybe you’ve been down to levels of agony that make my problems seem utterly ridiculous.
And yep, when I hear people bitching about which tile to pick out in their Newport Beach mansion as if that’s the biggest, hardest decision they’ve ever made, I judge the shit out of them. I wonder what the hell is wrong with them. Privileged assholes. Never suffered a day in their lives.
And I imagine that is precisely what that woman saw when she read my blog: Privileged asshole. Look at her, bitching about those gorgeous children. She thinks she’s suffering. She’s never suffered a day in her life.
And compared to her, she’s right.
I have not known that pain. I cannot even comprehend an ounce of the pain that is her pain.
But my pain is still real, and unfortunately, imagining greater pain does not alter the course of my own. The only thing that alters the course of my own is life. Experience. I must live through my pain as you live through yours, wherever we are on the spectrum of depth and insight and development.
I must move through the course of my life, learning as I go what matters, what doesn’t, and each person’s journey is their own, to be endured, enjoyed, lived and learned from.
There’s a line in this song by Langhorne Slim, one of my favorite singers in the world, and it goes like this: “I’ve had it better than some and I know that I shouldn’t complain/though my grandfather told me once that all pain hurts the same.”
I have a hard time believing the pain I feel from my nondescript depression that’s come and gone my whole life, my vague dissatisfaction with life, is the same as the pain of losing a child. In fact, I know it cannot be. And frankly I find it self-righteous and ridiculous to claim it’s the same.
But he’s right: Pain is relative. And it all hurts. And the pain you feel from your suffering can be as profound as my own, even though your life might not cause ME pain. We cannot one-up each other’s suffering. There’s no healing in that.
And yet, there’s a strange thing that happens when you put yourself in the presence of somebody in greater pain than you. Theirs becomes yours, and yours seems small.
Sometimes I speak in rehab centers for drunks and addicts who were found homeless on the streets. When I spend an hour with those women, I get in my car and I have no fucking problems.
And when I spend time with friends who are really, really struggling, like fighting cancer or losing a baby or missing a husband who just died, and I try to be of service to them somehow, I get out of myself, and my pain is diminished, forgotten for a while. I let go of myself and find peace in the disassociation. I would say those moments keep me alive, bump me back on track.
It’s a fucking gorgeous thing. But it isn’t an IDEA. It’s an experience. I am experiencing a shift in my perspective arising from a moment with somebody else – a collision with reality that knocks me out of my delusion.
But day in and day out, as the daily annoyances and difficulties of my life arise, as I find myself impatient and yelling at the small human specimens who irritate the living shit out of me but would take my life if I lost them, when I lay my head down at night broken and done and without resources, the vague idea that some people have it worse does precisely jack shit to alleviate my pain or make me more patient and loving and kind.
Does that make me an asshole? Probably. But I’d rather be an asshole facing my asshole nature than an asshole pretending to be enlightened.
Part of my journey is facing exactly how self-centered I am, how self-absorbed and shallow I can be – how unreliable my perceptions often are. And, perhaps most importantly, how 99% of the time, my problems lie IN MY HEAD rather than in reality. Reality is that I have a damn good fucking life. My head says “Let’s be sad. Let’s be depressed. All things suck.”
But I can’t change a broken mind with a broken mind. I can’t fix a problem WITH the problem. (That’s not mine. I learned that from sober alcoholics.) I’ve got to move my feet in a different direction. I’ve got to continue living my life, trusting that teachers will always come, teachers who won’t TELL me how I SHOULD be feeling, shame me into something I’m clearly not capable of doing, but SHOW ME through their actions, through the very essence of their selves, through their motherfucking LIVES – who they are what they see and how they’ve suffered, and overcome. Until I remember, see the truth of my own life, and maybe realize that through my own suffering and what I’ve overcome, I can help others do the same.
Until my problems become nothing, and my pain diminishes, and I’m grateful again.