On the Art of Comparative Suffering

When arguing about who has it worse, discussions rarely stay focused in their scope. What was previously considered an indignity is suddenly transformed into a mantle of strength when one’s position in squalor is elevated to that of quiet nobility. “Things aren’t great for me right now,” a single mother might say, before she chooses to comfort herself with what she believes to be a humbling statement: “But at least…” The list of things for which she “at least” can be thankful for is as endless as her optimism is strong. This is a form of deflection because attention is too quickly taken from the present and is placed, instead, on a hypothetical, worse future.

We understand why this person deflects. As a society, one influenced by Christian teachings, we demand humility even in suffering. Your suffering is never too great—this we accept as axiomatic. Therefore, better not to bore us with the details of your troubles or aggrandize yourself with your capacity to endure. It’s best to turn that frown upside down and be grateful for that which is currently making you ungrateful. “Because at least…” Because at least you aren’t the Christ flogged and spiked to a pole.

Is this line of thinking helpful? I consider it willing delusion. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging and accepting that one’s position isn’t great, when it isn’t great. What is to be gained by projecting future, potential problems that have yet to arrive, or devaluing another life because it is presently worse than yours—worse, in this instance, is a value judgement made by the individual; happiness and meaning are derived from his considerations on the topic. While engaging in comparative suffering is temporarily comforting, because that is the benefit of being delusional, it doesn’t allow one to accept a constant of life: There will be suffering.”

And yet, engaging in comparative suffering is how we simultaneously comfort ourselves while arguing for why others should not receive comfort. Take the government shutdown: 800,000 workers were furloughed and had no idea when they would get back on the job, or whether they would receive backpay. America learned that some of these people were living paycheck-to-paycheck, and their housing was suddenly in jeopardy. Providing meals for their children became difficult. “Well, they should have…” the cynics were quick to cry. Skip past sympathy, ignore compassion, comparative suffering is whatabout-ism by another term. “Well, they should have…” deflects from the cause of the situation (political gridlock and intransigence) and shifts it to a hypothetical course of action, the kind that only presents itself with hindsight and assumes that what one would have done is what others should have done, as well. And could have done.

Our society could not operate if we assumed that most people were not interested in their own well-being, or that of their children. We would quickly crumble and languish under what we believed to be the reality of a meaningless existence. Society would barely endure past the first generation. So, we must accept the opposite; that, if given the means to do so, people would make preparations for the periods of suffering that inevitably hit us all. Absent adequate means, people make do as best they can on the day-to-day. Take away those means and people are thrust into instability and uncertainty because, in the case of furloughed workers, the cause of their chaos will also be their salvation. One side had to give—just today, Trump folded.

But he folded under the condition that he would not fold again. Federal workers will return to their post, with uncertainty and instability still hanging over their heads. “Well, what about…” is the retort of the disgruntled worker, or he who takes it upon himself to be disgruntled for others. “Well, what about the auto factory worker, the steel plant employee, the people who will never get their jobs back?” The losers. The ones who lost due to economic and political changes outside of their control. Should government workers, or anyone for that matter, continue to suffer unnecessarily because there is injustice in the world? No. But this is the premise upon which comparative suffering rests. Others suffer, therefore you should too. The end of your suffering isn’t justified until there is an end to all suffering. “Well, at least they got their job back!” Yes, but the return of government workers or their continued absence would have done nothing for those you claim to defend.

It’s not even that two wrongs don’t make a right. These issues are so disjointed that it’s more like one wrong and one orange don’t make an octopus. By failing to keep a discussion on suffering focused on the present—on its causes and impact—we don’t think critically about those causes and impact. Instead, discussions embrace irrelevant tangents of bygone times and ideological brinkmanship that solve nothing and only add to the clutter and noise.

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