The thief of healing


By Milla Alexander / 12 May 2020


As the adrenaline starts to wear off and our productivity begins to plateau, just how much COVID-19 will impact us all is starting to set in.

Lockdown is ongoing, people are dying, jobs have been lost, and businesses may not survive. With the rapid flow of news bulletins and social commentary, it seems we have a front-row seat to effects of this pandemic. And with that comes the question. Who hurts more?

Consider the following:

Who is in the most pain? The woman who’s lost a child or the mother who watches their child slowly starve knowing there is nothing she can do about it? 

Who is worse off? The chronically ill person who's had their benefits halved, or the one who’s lost their job? 

Who deserves more support? The young woman forced into an arranged marriage with a stranger, or the wife who’s scared to leave her abusive husband?

It’s likely that the above made you think. You probably took time trying to decide what scenario you deemed the hardest to endure.

This is comparative suffering.

The act of seeing one person's suffering in the light of other people's suffering. ‘Rating’ someone’s pain against another’s. Judging somebody’s anguish with your own. They say that comparison is the thief of joy. If that’s true, comparative suffering withholds healing.

When you compare your pain, whether it be physical, mental or emotional, the healing process is instantly halted. If you’ve told yourself, or someone else has made you feel, that what you’re going through is ‘nothing’ in comparison to another person’s situation, guilt takes hold and processing your torment becomes impossible.

What commonly happens, as a result of comparative suffering, is that people begin to think they’re a ‘bad person’, like they don’t deserve to complain. They forget that everyone deserves to feel. They diminish their feelings, close up, and stop confiding in loved ones. They might isolate themselves because hiding their sadness becomes impossible.

Ultimately, the pain doesn’t vanish, it burrows deeper and then builds exponentially, leaving some people consumed with shame.

In relation to our current global situation, it’s plausible that we’re all suffering to some degree. Celebrities, for example, have seen their daily routines in studios, on sets or at award shows come grinding to a halt. Business owners, particularly independent ones, are relying on reserves and loans, and A&E nurses are working to the bone day in and day out. Despite these examples being starkly different, each of these groups of people deserves to feel a level of grief. Right?

Now we have to be honest; COVID-19 is not the great equaliser.

BAME people are bearing the brunt of coronavirus. People from marginalised communities and individuals of lower socioeconomic status will likely be those who can not work from home, who are key workers, and who are living with others in the same situation. The proof of this is so clear, there will be an inquiry into it. So, seeing the likes of Madonna laying back in a bathtub claiming that coronavirus does ‘not care about how rich you are’ strikes a chord. In fact, it’s damn near infuriating. 

Understanding your own privilege, particularly at a time like this, is imperative. Having internet access during this time is a privilege. Living in a safe and comfortable home is something not everyone is lucky to have. Being furloughed is a privilege. Being grateful is imperative.

Being grateful for what you are lucky to have during a pandemic does not mean you shouldn’t reserve the right to feel grief for the things you have lost because of it. 

Professor, lecturer, author and podcaster Brene Brown said: 

“The entire myth of comparative suffering comes from the belief that empathy is finite. That when you practice empathy, there’s less to go around”.

Right now, it’s important to consider the hardships faced by doctors and nurses on the frontline of this terrifying time. But conserving your kindness for them doesn’t mean you have to withhold it from your colleague who’s lost their independent business. It doesn’t mean you should give less empathy to yourself.

The more that you focus on your own needs and recognise that you are struggling and that it’s ok to feel bad about it, the more open you will be to attending to the feelings of others.

Words by
Milla Alexander

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