by Troy Chapman
I was talking to a young guy who had a short sentence and he was telling me about the various pains of his situation. I could tell he was frustrated and hurting; he’d lost contact with his kids and thought his wife may be seeing someone else in his absence. I listened because he just needed to talk about it. Eventually he asked about my situation — how long I’d been in and when I was getting out. I told him I had twenty-some years in and wasn’t sure when I might be released.
He was quiet for a minute and seemed to be embarrassed on hearing this. Finally he sort of chuckled and said, “Here I am crying about my problems and you’re doing a 60- to 90-year bit. You must be sick of hearing this stuff from short-timers.” I shook my head and told him no. “What you’re dealing with is as hard for you as what I’m dealing with is for me. It’s all real and it all hurts, right?”
He thought about this for a moment and seemed relieved to hear me say it. He knew what he was feeling was real and it hurt, yet because my situation was objectively worse he felt an impulse to dismiss his own inner voice that told him “I’m hurting.” Some external voice told him that what he was feeling wasn’t valid in the face of my “worse” situation.
We’re taught to think this way. If I’m suffering depression but have a relatively good life — I’m not homeless or starving — I’m encouraged to compare my own suffering to someone who has it worse, someone who has no home and doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. The implication is that my suffering isn’t as valid as theirs. It’s the old saw about a guy complaining because he has no shoes and meeting a man who has no feet.
I suppose there’s something to be said for that thinking. We should be grateful and know that someone, somewhere is probably suffering more than we are. But we shouldn’t make the leap to conclude that because that’s true, our suffering is somehow invalid or trivial. Suffering isn’t an objective thing; it’s more about our inner response to external situations than it is about the situations themselves.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about suffering well is that all suffering — our own as well as that of others — needs to be seen from the inside out and never from the outside in. A child who thinks there are monsters under the bed is suffering terror no less real than a woman who’s afraid her abusive spouse may kill her. If we see these two situations from the outside in, we may dismiss the child’s suffering as “silly,” but I don’t believe that’s healthy.
We do the same thing to ourselves, rejecting and feeling guilty about suffering that isn’t “significant.” Obviously we need to use wisdom in responding to different situations. Some suffering calls for more attention and different action, but that’s not the same as this value judgment we make about it.
When I began seeing my own and all suffering as valid I began to develop deeper empathy for myself and others. And I found that suffering, when honored and respected in this way, flows more naturally. When we dishonor it by dismissing and trivializing it, it hides, turns into shame, anger and self-hatred — all things that will come out in some way in our lives and ultimately cause more suffering.
For me, all suffering is real and worthy of attention. If you’re suffering and don’t feel you have a right to feel the way you do, throw that thinking out in reference to yourself as well as others. Suffering just is, and there’s no such thing as legitimate or illegitimate suffering. When we validate all suffering, it doesn’t create a bunch of crybabies as we’ve been told. It actually helps people process their suffering in healthier ways and move through it, because to validate suffering is to validate the person who is experiencing it, just as to invalidate it is to invalidate the person. Sometimes it takes nothing more than for someone to say “I hear you and I’m listening” to empower another to make it through.
Sketch by Troy Chapman