I have a close family member who suffered a terrible tragedy. His young daughter caught an infection while hospitalized for a routine procedure, and the ensuing fever went so high that it caused irreversible brain damage. Due to her cognitive impairments, her behavior is similar to that of an autistic child, and she requires life-long care. Although decades have passed, my relative has neverPeople respond to hardships differently
come to terms with the terrible reality and still tears up thinking about his
Perhaps this is one of the worst types of suffering a parent can experience. The problem is, my relative, whom we’ll call Sam, will let me know this on a regular basis. If Sam asks me how I’m feeling, and I respond, “Tired, because the kids kept me up last night,” he’ll say, “Well, at least you don’t have a child like I do. She has kept us up many nights.” If I mention an anecdote about the sibling rivalry in my home, Sam might say, “At least your children are normal; my daughter never fought with her siblings because she couldn’t.” I learned very quickly to be careful with what I say around him.
Sam might be an extreme case, but there are many people who think the way he does. “Be thankful for what you have,” they say or think, “because I’ve got it a lot worse.” I’ve seen this attitude expressed in various forms. But this logic is faulty.
First of all, no one can ever really know what other people are going through. Many people put on a great act; inside their homes and hearts, however, they are in extreme pain. For whatever reason, not everyone is able to share their challenges with the outside world. The Sams of the world may feel that their suffering is greater than anyone else’s, but they can never really know what is going on behind closed doors.
But that is only the beginning. Even if we know someone is undergoing a difficult challenge—and we even know what their challenge is—we cannot trivialize it, no matter how trifling it seems to us. G‑d created each of us with different
life circumstances, different personalities, different psychological makeups,
and different support networks. Because of this, people respond to hardships
differently. Two people might have the same exact difficulty, but for one
person it is a mediocre challenge, perhaps a level 5 test, while for another it
may be excruciatingly difficult, a level 10 test. Sam may not realize this, but
the “ordinary” challenges of other people may be just as painful and overwhelming to them as his challenges are to him.
I was once part of an interactive workshop about challenges in life, and I recall one lady spoke with tremendous emotion about her toddler who didn’t walk on time, and how difficult it was for her. She told us how she and her husband went from one specialist to the next, and ran from one great sage to another to receive their blessings, until the child finally learned how to walk. The way she told over the tale, I was certain her child must have been at least 4 years old by the time he began walking. I was astounded when she told me that he was merely 18 months old.
Eighteen months old? Her child was only marginally delayed. My first instinct was to disparage her claim that she had lived throughMy first instinct was to disparage her . . .
torment. But then I realized that my attitude was imitating Cousin Sam. Maybe,
just maybe, her challenge had been as daunting for her as my own challenges
were for me.
The following week, the same lady spoke about how difficult it was for her that she could not afford a certain fancy laundry hamper that would make her laundry sorting easier. The way she spoke about it, one would have thought she didn’t own a washing machine and had to wash her clothing in the river like in the olden days.
A fancy laundry hamper? I thought. Is that such a terrible lack? But again, Cousin Sam’s voice echoed in my head, and I caught myself. Who was I to say that her unsatisfied need for a hamper was a trivial need?
A friend of mine who is a therapist once told me a great story with a similar message. Her client was a teenage girl who was dealing with two huge stressors in her life. The first was speech impairment—a significant stutter—while the second was a relocation overseas with her family. Now, in addition to the stutter, she had to contend with a new culture and language, and during her teenage years, to boot.
The therapist had a suspicion that the girl and her mother had different perspectives on the daughter’s challenges, and decided to conduct an experiment. Using the imagery of a pizza pie, the girl was asked to rate how many slices of the pie each problem took up, by raising her fingers with her eyes closed. Her mother was asked to do the same, rating how she felt her daughter viewed each problem.
When asked about the stutter, the mother raised seven fingers, almost the entire pie; she felt her daughter must be suffering terribly from her stutter. Surprisingly, the teen raised two fingers. When asked about the family’s relocation, the mother held up four fingers; she felt her daughter was managing the move beautifully. The teen raised eight! The mother
thought she knew what was hard for her daughter and what was easy for her—but as it turned out, she had it all backwards! How often do we have it backwards when we evaluate other people’s suffering? In fact, who are we to evaluate their struggles at all?
Ultimately, there really is no room to compare suffering between individuals since as believing Jews, we know that the world is not random and suffering is Divinely orchestrated. We are placed in this world to fulfill a specific task, and howThere is no room to compare suffering
much suffering that may require is individual. And since each person’s
suffering is uniquely tailored to him or her, it stands to reason that one
person’s “small” challenges may be as great as someone else’s “big” ones.
I recently suffered a difficult challenge, the birth of a child with medical issues. While speaking with my sister-in-law about various doctor’s visits and tests, I became conscious that I was monopolizing the conversation. I made sure to ask her, “What is new at your end?” I could tell she was uncomfortable. She surely felt awkward telling me about her day-to-day doings when I was dealing with something so major. So I put her at ease. “Really, I want to know. I haven’t lost my ability to talk about normal things, too.”
I guess I do need to thank Cousin Sam—for letting me know what it feels like to be on the receiving end.