I had a conversation with a fellow mom not too long ago that began with us joking about how it never fails that our sweet children mutate into screaming, clingy, little beasties the moment we pick up the phone. At first, this mom was laughing as she shared a recent anecdote about a child throwing an interminable, titanic tantrum just outside her home office door while she was on a business call. She then talked about the bigger picture challenges of being a mother who also has to work professionally from her home. She was in no way wallowing or griping, but she paused after she’d expressed her frustrations and quickly said something about how she knew it wasn’t a big deal or a big problem. Then she apologized for her “whining” through teary eyes. I didn’t know her all that well, but I wanted to give her a big hug and tell her she wasn’t being whiny and she could cry on my shoulder all she wanted because Lord knows, I’ve been there. I was there just this morning, in fact, when I felt invisible, absolutely invisible because no one was listening to me or paying any attention to me whatsoever. I tried to rally the troops with positive directives, but when madness ensued and my blood pressure shot up I sadly ended up barking drill sergeant orders. Interestingly, last week another mom friend of mine who has several little ones texted me and asked if I ever felt invisible and like no one listens to me or even knows I am there. Affirmative.
I’ve recently found myself venting (incessantly whining) about some of the challenges my family has faced in recent months from bats in our bedrooms to lice (yup, that was one thing I definitely never worried about as a homeschooler). But I always feel guilty bemoaning these everyday stresses when we have a roof over our heads and are in good health. So like the fellow mom I talked with, I quickly undermine the challenges. “It’s not that big of deal.” “I’m fine.” “I am so blessed,” I might say. Or, “These are just first-world problems.”
And I am very blessed, but that doesn’t mean life isn’t sometimes tough. I don’t live in abject poverty. My kids are clothed, and we don’t have to worry about getting food on the table, although I do sometimes approach meal planning with trepidation knowing I have to somehow come up with meals week after week that the whole family will actually eat, poke and prod like it’s a science experiment, not eye-roll at, or surreptitiously feed to the dog. Of course, there’s always someone worse off than I am. I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve limped along with my running injury. I could not be able to use my legs. Or I could not have any legs at all.
Yet, as a dear friend who also happens to do medical mission work in the poorest of the poor places of the world reminded me this summer after the bats, broken bones, kaput refrigerator, flooded basement, and general chaos of raising a largish family told me, “I’d say you’re dealing with some pretty tough things. A real first-world problem is being upset about losing followers in Pinterest.”
I have no idea who’s following me on Pinterest. I pretty much stopped going on that first-world, happy haven because I frequently clicked away feeling dejected rather than inspired. But my good friend’s wisdom as well as the recent exchange with the hurting mother reminded me of something very important. If we encounter someone who is suffering, then our primary job is to dole out compassion, not to compare their suffering to others’.
Similarly, if something is hard for us, then it is hard for us. It doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t think it would be a big deal. My dad joked with me that an injury like I’m dealing with that rendered him immobile would be a good excuse to watch more TV, although I did remind him it really hurt to sit. When I was on pregnancy bedrest, my mother-in-law laughed and said that bed rest is only a challenge for Type Aers like me. For her it sounded like nirvana – a big extended nap and an awesome excuse to be idle.
Think about our children. How many crocodile tears do we encounter in a given week or if you – like me – live in a house full of dramatic daughters, how many emotional outbursts do you encounter every single day? Toddlers cry because you cut their sandwiches into triangles instead of rectangles. (How dare you, you dolt!) Preschoolers throw a fit because you forgot to wash their polka dot pants they want to wear every third Tuesday of the month. (You always forget!) Gradeschoolers bawl because you are cruel parent who won’t let them see the PG movie every single other child their age has watched half a dozen times. (You are so mean!) Teenagers get angry just when you tell them you love them. (Just leave me alone!)
Our kids’ behavior may appear irrational and may very well be a little absurd. It may drive us crazy, hurt us, or make us angry, but we all know what a tantrum-throwing toddler or insolent teenager really needs more than our judgment, rational advice, or anger is empathy and compassion. I know you wanted a three-sided PBJ sandwich, and Mommy is sorry she cut it the wrong way, but it’s still yummy. I know you’re angry with me, but try to understand that I make these tough decisions out of my love for you. Yada. Yada. Yada.
The same is true for all of our fellow human beings. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you have an Internet connection and a warm house and mostly deal with what we might call “first-world problems,” but those tiny, toothpick like crosses can add up and feel awfully heavy, and we need to be careful about discounting them.
Not only do I need to not undercut my own personal struggles and instead open myself to the love, support, and understanding from others, but I need to be there for others and to crucify any possible judgment of their level of suffering. We cannot compare our burdens – or our blessings for that matter. We shouldn’t start weighing others’ crosses; we should offer to help carry them. We need to offer compassion for whatever a person may feel is hard. If something is hard for someone, then they are suffering. Period.
Consider the exhausted new mom who is constantly told to enjoy those precious first few months and just wait until that baby is a mobile toddler or a back-talking tween. How do we make her feel by suggesting it’s not as bad as she thinks or that she ought to be basking in baby bliss? She is in a dark, scary, and new place. She has this squirmy vessel of hopes and dreams who wakes her up every hour that she loves with all of her heart but sometimes fears, too. She’s afraid to trim those paper-thin fingernails ascending from those impossibly tiny fingers. She knows she’s supposed to feel happy all of the time with this precious bundle in her midst, but sometimes she just wants to crawl out of her saggy, postpartum skin and have her old life back so she decides to open up and tell you her fears, guilt, and struggles. Don’t you dare undermine her, tell her it’s not so bad, or remind her she should be thankful to have a healthy baby. She is thankful. But she’s suffering, too.
Whomever we are dealing with – whether it’s a new mother, a rebel teenager, a frazzled friend, or an irrational teenager – we need to love first. If we snark, reprimand, undermine, or even remind someone of their blessings when they’re mired in sadness or overwhelmed, all we’re doing is making that person feel weaker, lonelier, and more uncertain and hopeless. And this perhaps will make her more likely to be burdened by every little “first world” problem.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta once said the greatest poverty of the Western world was loneliness. Here we are hyper-connected with our smartphones and able to stuff ourselves with plates full of food. We are afraid to admit life can be hard when we have so much. But we are still suffering – just in different ways than people do in different parts of the world. Maybe what we all need is to simply be there for others no matter what is bearing down on them, and all we must ask in return is for someone to be there for us, too, when we’re faced with our own big and small trials.