November 2, 2018 by Julia
Why do we compete with each other over who has the harder life?
We are trying to prove our worth, as if our worth has anything to do with our circumstances or abilities. But if we adopt the stance that everyone has equal worth, we can stop playing these games, and come at ourselves and others from a place of honesty, compassion, and respectful expectation.
I’ve led with my pain, rather than my happiness, too many times to count. I’m interested in finding out why. If it was a bad day rather than a good one, fine; but when I pick out only the problems to report to my husband or friend or mom, and skip over the things that went well, it seems…not only annoying to listen to, but misguided. It’s like I worry that if I present too happy of a picture, the people I depend so much on will think they don’t need to help me anymore.
For example, I might be doing well in part because I know my husband is doing bedtime duty that night, and if he withdraws from that commitment, I suddenly won’t be doing well. In a partnership, the dance of duties and how we present our days to each other over dinner is complicated. I would like to be transparent, though – not hiding the good or bad, or trying to one-up each other’s difficulties in order to determine who gets to do the dishes. Dennis and I depend on basic fairness and routine in our partnership, but try to remain open to each other’s passing needs, which have nothing to do with balance, because sometimes lives don’t stay balanced. Whenever I get afraid to tell Dennis how good my day was, I try to tamp down my fear of him taking the opportunity to ask something of me, in my good mood (not that he even would, necessarily – he might just be glad for me). I remind myself that I can still say no, even when I’m doing well, if I think that it will change my wellness. But I would also like to say yes when I feel strong enough to do extra.
All of this is about justifying ourselves to others. It’s about hoarding our happiness and leading with our pain so that we can prove to everyone that we’ve earned what we have, and we need more. I am all for sharing our pain as a path to emotional intimacy. It’s when we size up our struggles in a spirit of judgment that we get into trouble. When I start comparing the particular, nuanced difficulties of my life to other people’s lives, as if there’s some totem pole or metric of who deserves to feel what, as if needs had anything to do with “shoulds,” I’ve strayed into pointless territory where no one wins.
There are too many complex factors to ever make a “fair” comparison between two lives, two people. Even if two people had the same exact circumstances, same amount of privilege, same support system or lack thereof: certain things are just harder for some individuals than for others. Who are we to say that they’re “wrong” for struggling with certain issues more than we do? We’ve got our own issues. My issues aren’t more respectable than yours, as much as I would like to pretend so sometimes.
It’s equally important to acknowledge the things that have been given to us, regardless of merit. I accept that many people do have it much harder than I do, because I am a straight, able-bodied, middle-class, American, white, liberal-hippie-style-Christian who can play both sides. (In fact, I have too many privileges to even name here.) People who can’t admit that they have privilege are trying to compare their lives to others as though none of the complex social factors that influence all of us even exist. They insist that we are all on an equal playing field, and should be judged accordingly, essentially saying, “That man ended up in jail because he is bad, and I am not.” Or, “That homeless woman is poor because she is lazy, and I am not.” Such people wield their privilege like a weapon by blaming others for their own misfortune, turning everything into a matter of character, when that is not the only factor in play.
If we were truly in the shoes of someone with less opportunity or favor than ourselves, who knows if we would be doing better or worse than them? We don’t know, we can’t know, because we are all unique individuals, in utterly unique life situations.
And then there are those of us who struggle with guilt over our privilege, and put those who have less than ourselves on a pedestal, awkwardly handling them with gloves. We might wallow and despair over all the things we don’t deserve, which we have been given. We apologize for complaining about anything, worrying that people will judge us for our suffering when we already have so much good.
But the thing is, we are all just people. Our worth is equal, regardless of our place in the world, or the choices we’ve made. We learn a lot through the endurance of pain, but the pain itself doesn’t determine our superiority or inferiority to others, because our baseline is equality as human beings. Our reaction to pain might determine the moral goodness of our lives, but we can’t even control our behavior much of the time. Like everyone, I have pain and happiness that ebbs and flows, and there is nothing to gain in trying to convince you that mine is worse or better than yours. It just is, regardless of how it compares to you.
We can be passive-aggressive little shits when envy or shame overwhelm us, prompting us to try to steal the success of others so that we can justify our own self-perceived failures. Like, “Suzy” is twenty pounds lighter than me, because of genetics, and money for a personal trainer, and she has less stress because she doesn’t have kids. I’m not at my goal weight because I’ve birthed two babies, and can’t afford a personal trainer, and don’t have time because I have kids! Now, such justifications aren’t necessarily false (the “I don’t have time or money” excuse can often be false, but it depends on the person). It’s true that Suzy’s circumstances and body type make it easier for her stay slim. But I don’t have to undermine her success in this area in order to explain away my failure to her. To do so is actually unkind to her. If we love someone, we want to celebrate their good fortune with them. I don’t know how hard she actually works to maintain her slim figure, not really. And even if it is pure luck, so what? I have my own luck, in other areas, which she may wish for, herself.
Another example: “I cussed out my kids because my anxiety is out of control today, and I’m just so exhausted because I have to do everything around here, and no one cleans up after themselves!” Which implies, “You wouldn’t understand, because you [‘don’t have kids’ or ‘got to sit in an office all day’ or ‘you have hired help’ or ‘your house is so small it’s easier to manage’].” That last one makes me laugh. We can come up with the craziest justifications for why we have failed where our peers didn’t. The point is: taking away from a friend or partner’s success will not add to my own. In fact, their success or failure does not reflect my own at all. Do I wish for others to point out all my “unearned” good fortune? No, I wish for others to be happy for me, if they know me and care about me. Celebrating the good fortune of our loved ones is just as important as sharing burdens of sorrow with them.
I’ve already mentioned that when things are going well for me, I’m often reluctant to share my good fortune with others. Part of this stems from sensitivity to their current situations: you don’t talk about how much fun it is to buy baby clothes to someone who is in the throes of an infertility battle. I genuinely don’t want my passing successes to trigger pain or longing in others – even if technically, their reaction to my success is not my problem. I want everyone to get their heart’s purest, most passionate desire, really. Inclusivity is important to me. I want everyone to join in the party. It’s very difficult for me when they can’t.
The other, less kind part of hiding my good fortune is that I fear people will try to steal it with those aforementioned excuses for why something good has happened to me, meant to undermine my character or call into question my deservedness. Like they think I haven’t worked hard enough for what I have, or I don’t have the same struggles that they do. In these cases, I feel the need to justify my position in this world by dragging out all my own flaws and trials, just to show that it didn’t come easy to me, either. I want to feel that I have earned my place in the world. These are particularly American values. We like to think everyone eventually gets what they deserve.
Can we all just admit that this is not how life works, though? We’ve already acknowledged that privilege is something most of us are born into, in varying degrees, one form or another. Who can say which newborn deserves perks that another doesn’t, when they’ve only just taken their first breaths of life? Deserve has nothing to do with it. And if you’ve lived long enough, you know that sometimes you stumble into some grace or luck when you least expect it. And sometimes when you do everything right, things still don’t work out. Yes, we should continue to aim for justice and fairness and goodness, because that is all we can do as humans facing of the great mysteries of life. But “deserving” is not something we need to concern ourselves with. It’s not like gravity. It can’t be counted upon, for a million different reasons.
Things happen to us, and we do our best to hold each other’s hands through it. Forgiving, and celebrating, and weeping, again and again. The only level playing field there is: we all need forgiveness, we all need each other’s love, and we are all equal in value. That’s it.