Everyone loves a good victim story. In our society we love feeling sorry for any kind of victim: victims of racism, gender inequality, sexual harassment, you name it. We live our lives as though there existed an unspoken objective hierarchy of pain according to traumatic events. Oh you were raped once? Well I was raped FIVE times which therefore means I suffered four more units of pain than you did.
I am NOT at all mocking our beliefs or anyone that has suffered anything. It REALLY seems to make sense. We can only identify certain causes of pain and so in the cases where there is no obvious cause, we rationally assume that there must be no pain.
Pain, however, is not nearly so elitist as we give it credit for. We believe pain is something you earn the right to hold by undergoing some overtly tragic experience, but in reality pain layers itself over all of as indiscriminately as an Equal Opportunity Employer.
Growing up, all things considered, I had it pretty good. Sure, my parents screwed up, but when it came down to it they were willing to admit that they were wrong and learn a different way of doing things. They cared. They do care. And yet somehow I ended up with enough pain to do nothing but try to kill myself for four years.
I’m just one example. I’ve talked to and coached many, many people from all walks of life– people who have been simply ignored, people who have been raped by their father, brother and every other adult male within a 5 mile radius, transgender people, people with addictions of all kinds– you name it. And I can say with certainty that the apparent trauma in our lives is entirely unrelated to the amount of pain we feel. Ultimately the only pain that exists in life is not feeling loved and each trauma is just another confirmation of that message, no matter how romantic and overblown or how quiet and deceptively innocent.
What does determine the amount of pain we feel? That I do not know. Nor is it worth quantifying. Something to do, I imagine, with our natural dispositions and our sensitivity to emotional wounds.
I have this friend who is the single saddest person I have ever met. He was never abused or man-handled. He went to one of the most elite private schools in the country and then to an equally renowned college. He appears to be passionate about business and insists that he has very supportive parents. And yet, saddest person I know.
Believe me, I have met troubled people.
He’d be shocked to hear me this. Doesn’t have a clue how sad he really is. There’s no anger, never any blaming or irritation, and no whining. Just plain sadness.
I met him for lunch and he told me about how his parents are reaching their golden years and his mom learned how to shoot again. Told me he had to get ready to take care of them while they were irresponsible. Mentioned his little brother is studying art. Told me he had to get ready to support him so that he could offer his work to the world.
Then he told me about a trip he took last weekend. Head of his schools business association he went on a retreat with his colleagues to a remote vacation spot. While his classmates drank the night away, he sat in his room working until he got a frantic call about someone finding a roommate passed out in a pool of blood. Inspected the kid up and down, found a gash in his head, drove him an hour to the nearest hospital where they put staples in his head. Next day gets a frantic call from the mother, demanding to know what he’s done with her child. Drives an hour to explain the situation to the parents, as the child has no memory of the night.
Why? Why is it my friend’s responsibility to talk to some kid’s parents about the kid’s irresponsible decisions?
See, it’s not. But that doesn’t make a difference in the world because my friend THINKS it is. He lives his entire life believing that he is solely responsible for the happiness and well-being of every single human on the planet. And so for all intents and purposes, he is. He lives with the crushing weight of this insurmountable responsibility every day. The fact that it’s not true is irrelevant.
No human being can bear that burden. Heck, even when Jesus was on the cross bearing all the sins of humanity, even HE lost hope toward the end. Even he cried out, “Oh God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And so us mere mortals? Not a chance.
We could never hope to MAKE everyone happy. The most we can do is love to the best of our ability. If we allow ourselves to become distracted by the gory details of any particular story, we lose sight of what actually matters and rob ourselves of the opportunity to feel compassion for those who suffer more quietly.