Contact Us

Whose Monopoly on Suffering?

Whose Monopoly on Suffering?


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 brain-damaged daughter.

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!1 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.

Special thanks to Miriam Klapper and Uri Schnieder of Schneider Speech for this story.
By Shira Becker
Shira Becker is a pen name.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous November 21, 2016

If we feel belittled we need for our own sake to know how to express that so the other person would think about what they're saying more carefully. The danger too otherwise, is that in our frustration, we end up doing exactly the same thing to someone else while justifying it all. Who can assume that anyone here has not suffered years of abuse? Or other tragedies that was beyond our control? And if not it does not mean that their views are irrelevant. It would be more helpful if people show empathy when someone is having a difficult time ,while also recognizing the blessings that we each do have in our lives. Reply

Anonymous israel November 20, 2016

no, I've never lived with autism 24/7 but then again, I take it you never suffered years of abuse 24/7
I think comparing suffering is as relevant as comparing apples and oranges. Not to mention the teaching that G-d provides the specific strengths needed to deal together with the trial itself. Thus I truly wouldn't be able to bear your suffering, nor could you perhaps bear mine. Reply

Anonymous November 19, 2016

I'd have to agree with anonymous 17th November. Being a 24/7 carer of a grown person with severe autism for one day may change your perspective. Having said that, there are many levels of disabilities so I do not find it infuriating if I need to accept that some parents have a far heavier load than myself. It's just the way it is, some people have to carry a heavier load. A stranger who saw me and my specialneeds son shared with me the story of her adopted son , although he was a normally developing child cognitively, had a lot of psychological issues and ended up going in and out of prison. Even if the child is normal, you never know what will happen. My child will not have any peer pressure since he has no desire for social bonds with his peer. He will not have many of the trappings and issues experienced by normal adolescents. He will always be him. That's the way I look at it when I need to be positive. Reply

Anonymous November 17, 2016

I have never been to this site before. But I have to tell you that I found your essay appalling and insulting. My son is autistic 25 year's old. I know a vast number of people with special needs adult children and although I don't say what Sam said to you, you really have absolutely no idea how difficult it is to have a child who will never grow up, never marry, and will be left as the inheritance to your other children. Some of my friends with special needs adult children have to change diapers, sanitary pads etc. Some wonder their homes all night long and the parents have not slept in 30 years. And the financial strain is astronomical. I believe you absolutely belittled Sam's situation. I help other people all the time with their issues - people who need shiduchim, people who have no parnasa and I don't judge them or their suffering. But you judged your cousin Sam horribly. Be careful when you use special needs adults and families in your essays. You really have no idea Reply

Anonymous Chile November 16, 2016

Thank you! thanks for sharing :) Reply

Hefzivah Tennessee November 16, 2016

A different way of "seeing" Thank you, Shira Becker.I think your conclusions are correct, although it is difficult to be around people who can only speak of how difficult life is for them. Sometimes, I think their conversation is "I" focused and to even mention one's own difficulties or those of someone else--and not to be comparing the "magnitude" of the difficulty---is met with comments of how nothing can compare to what he/she is going through. I want to show compassion but I have learned that some people are so draining that I have choose to help where I can and then ask HaShem to "recharge" me so that I can have the strength physically, emotionally and spiritually to deal with my difficulties. I do pray for healing and resolution of problems of those who suffer. I have to accept that I cannot or am not the healer or resolver. I do not want to make problems worse for anyone, either.
Thank you for helping me see other's sufferings in a different light. Reply

Shulamit Melbourne, Australia. November 16, 2016

Thank you for writing this article.The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that the world needs kind hearts that listen and empathize, rather than brilliant minds. Reply

jim dallas November 15, 2016

yes, sufferings are as unique as being human is and one never can really know, that is for HaShem. Reply

Anonymous November 14, 2016

I remember talking to a woman who went to Darfur to interview refugees. Many of them had their entire families gunned down before their eyes. She thought, "How can I possibly talk to them when they've seen so much pain?" To her surprise, the things that were on their mind and stressing them out were day to day things like, does that cute girl notice me.

I think also that humans max out quickly on suffering. It's not linear. ie) being diagnosed with a cancer that has a 25% survival rate is not twice as scary as a cancer with a 50% survival rate. I've seen this in myself, having been diagnosed with MS. Sometimes pretty mundane life challenges make me just as upset as that diagnoses. We max out quickly.

I'm annoyed though when friends say thoughtless things like "You don't know what it's like to have your body fall apart, just wait until you're 40!" when they know I have MS and my body is already not working well. I said, "I wish I would be so lucky, to only have age to worry about. Reply

rena goldzweig tzfat November 13, 2016

I'/m so glad you wrote this!! I grew up in the shadow of my mother's experiences as a holocauset survivor. Nothing in my world could supposedly compete with her suffering. It took me many years to reach the same conclusion as you have - that every human being has a right to their own suffering. This insight has also allowed me to be more understanding towards others who may, in a superficial sense, suffer less than me. or you Reply

Anonymous Portsmouth VA November 13, 2016

Thank you. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous November 13, 2016

I can see how difficult it is to have a normal coversation with your relative who has a child with disability, but perhaps he always mentiones the challenges because that is really his normal day. When you are sleep deprived indefinitely , it does affect your outlook. On the other-hand I agree that we all have different challenges and we sholdn't minimise the other person's experiences. I don't speak at all about my child's disability except to relatives who ask after him as a principle nowadays and limit the conversations with friends to the topic of their choice. Reply

Related Topics