Your Pain is Real: The beauty of abandoning the Suffering Olympics

I have a rare form of muscular dystrophy. It's a progressive disease that slowly affects my heart, lungs, and overall muscle strength. It also causes varying degrees of soreness and pain, depending on my activity level and positioning.

Several years ago, I met a woman who experiences severe pain on a daily basis. Her multiple health issues combine to make a vicious cycle of agony which she manages with a complex cocktail of drugs and therapy.

And I thought to myself, who am I to complain about my pain? 

I expressed this idea in a small group of caring friends, and they challenged me with this loving statement:

Her extreme pain does not make your pain any less real. Pain is not for comparing.

Their insightful wisdom was uplifting and gave me the freedom to acknowledge and accept my own suffering.

Last week, I visited with a friend about her emotional pain. She confided that she felt guilty for her distress in light of my struggles. I recalled the vision my group had given me, and I passed it on to her.

My pain does not make your pain any less real.

I realized it's not just physical pain that we tend to compare. Emotional pain can be just as burdensome and damaging, but is often viewed as a lesser form of suffering. 

When we start placing ourselves in a hierarchy of misery, we send the message that only certain levels of pain are valid. We imply that if our anguish is "less than" another "worse" condition, then we aren't allowed to express our feelings about it.

Don't get me wrong - learning about the pain of others can give your problems perspective and bring about gratitude. And if you're only complaining for the sake of gaining pity, maybe gaining a new point of view would be healing.

If you're not careful with your witness, however, you can enter into an unseen competition: the Suffering Olympics.

In these games, pain takes on the role of arbiter, dividing participants and pitting them against each other. Those on "top" risk wearing their pain as a false medal of honor at the cost of their compassion for those with "less" pain. Sufferers on the "bottom" either discount their pain in homage to the "winners" or they seek out additional suffering to put them on the platform where society will recognize them and extend sympathy. In all cases, nobody wins but Pain.

We need to abandon the Suffering Olympics and embrace empathy and love.

The woman I met years ago is now a trusted friend. I can listen to her accounts of pain without diminishing my own struggles. We don't discuss pain for any other reason than to validate our feelings and encourage understanding.

We all experience pain. Will you compete in an unwinnable game of division and shame? Or will you seek caring support and extend compassion?

Some Doorways from last week:

  • I recently wrote about trying a meal kit service to expand my cooking knowledge. Last week, I prepared one of these meals all by myself! I felt a proud sense of accomplishment and was grateful I could provide dinner for my husband for a change.

  • Our dog, Riley, loves to chase birds in our backyard. I had to laugh out loud when she attempted to get rid of some pesky magpies. They just perched on the fence posts and teased her as she jumped and ran.

  • Yesterday we went tent camping again, and as we were leaving, I turned to the sun, closed my eyes, and let the wind blow across my smiling face. I knew the Spirit was present at that moment.


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