A friend recently opined in a public forum that people in general need to reassess their perspectives about complaining. Her position was based, in part, on so many of us in Connecticut bemoaning the particularly colder-than-usual and much, much snowier-than-usual winter we’re experiencing (and, to be fair, what the majority of the country has been experiencing), the average person’s general complaining about essentially trivial matters, and her new-found perspective about what really matters after having met someone who is homeless.
All too many people are homeless (even one would be too many) and this has been an awful winter in Connecticut for those who are. My friend met Horace (not his real name) at a place she frequents and where he spends many days coming in from the cold, trying to get warm and dry. He has been living outside – yes, even during this stretch of bad winter weather — and because of all the snow and lack of proper shelter, his clothes are wet a great deal of the time. (Editorial note: For those of you who wonder why Horace doesn’t just go to a homeless shelter, you need to do a little homework on these places. While many are good facilities run by decent people, a significant percentage are dangerous and unsafe. Along with that, Horace lives in a city where the need far outweighs the availability, and as of this writing he is currently 103 on the waiting list for a place to stay.)
In her post, my friend admonished readers for complaining about the one-after-another snow storms we’ve been having in Connecticut (and having to shovel over and over), or anything else for that matter, and that, instead we should pray for those who, in her words, “would love to have your problems.” My friend’s post was not the first time I’d read, or heard, this sentiment, and it won’t be the last. Each time I do, I reflect and feel very fortunate for all I have. And each time I do, I experience a slight knee-jerk reaction: Don’t minimize my personal hell.
Of course, I’m not going to go one-on-one with Horace – or anyone else, for that matter. Would Horace trade his situation for mine? I imagine he would. Would I trade for his? No. That Horace’s shoes have been almost always wet the past few weeks is horrible; I bet there’s someone without shoes who would trade places with him. And I’d wager the ten-year-old girl forced into slave labor in Shahpur Jat, making clothing that is available in stores in which you and I shop, would trade places with any of us. And what about the one whose life is such that he/she envies the ten-year-old girl? With which one of these people would you trade your life? Seriously, which one?
Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” I believe most people (OK, most people I know) practice a form of compassionate realism: That is to say, we are sympathetically conscious of those in worse straits than we, and many of us help when we can. Often, when a disaster strikes we respond with our checkbooks and credit cards. A cataclysm occurs – think Hurricane Katrina, a tsunami, the disaster in Haiti – and the Red Cross puts out an appeal for aid. Many of us respond. If the event occurred on domestic soil – the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings – we dive into fund raising efforts as if our loved ones were affected. A local family suffers an almost unspeakably horrific event, and we help with more than providing a casserole. The closer to home, the more visceral our compassion.
As humans, we are somewhat drawn to complaining about what appears to others as trivial. This is partially due to the trivial often being a shared misery. It’s easy to complain about what a pain it is to have to shovel snow yet again, because we’re all in that boat and complaining is a way to release some of the stress. Misery definitely loves company. But when it comes to the more major tribulations we face, especially the more personal they are, what we often don’t practice, but should (and here I generalize but am thinking of myself), is self-compassion: recognition that there are things we can, and should, complain about to some degree, and then find effective ways to cope with the difficulty.
A personal example: While I certainly complain about the cold and having to deal with snow removal, the complaint is based largely on a physical issue I developed in the past few years. Even with heavy socks and shoes and two pairs of gloves, it doesn’t take very long before my hands and feet become painful and then dangerously numb. Following a recent bout with the white stuff I went to my doctor, convinced I had frostbite on two toes. I didn’t, but may have a vascular issue (something I’ll learn more about when I have my appointment with a specialist), or Raynaud’s Syndrome. Would Horace want either of these? Of course not. But I’d wager he would deal with them, if not happily, in exchange for being able to have a warm, secure place to live, and dry clothes.
Many, if not most, of us always want the best that others have. It seems the greener the grass on the other side; the less likely we are to wonder what personal hell the owner of that lawn might be living with. I know a few people who appear to reek of success and who present as happy and content. One of them battles with alcoholism; another with a child who, with no apparent warning signs, committed suicide while in high school. Still another is on her third, rocky marriage. Anyone want to trade their problems with these folks?
My mother once told me a variation of an old adage in which if everyone put their problems in a pile and you could take one in exchange for your own, you would take back the one you put in the pile. Whether or not that is true in all cases, I believe that we come to terms –well, many of us, anyway – with the personal hells we can’t easily overcome, and use them to draw a certain degree of strength. In some instances, paradoxically, we may even draw a degree of comfort.
The other day I saw Horace, and was amazed at the brightness of his smile, a smile that extended well into his eyes. He is in a bad situation, for certain, but for all any of us know, it’s a better one than he had been in. Maybe that is why he smiles, or maybe he smiles because there is a greater joy in his soul than there is cold in his damp clothes. Or maybe he smiles because it’s easy to be morose, but the effort to be happy has a better result. A much better result.
Just a thought.