READY: Don’t play the misery comparison game
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is asked why he greedily collects souls to dwell with him in hell. He gave an answer, now famous: “Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris.” More or less, what he said was “Misery loves company.”
Some folks seem to take the same fiendish delight in knowing someone else is miserable when they’re suffering from illness, economic troubles, broken romances, or a great personal loss. What broken-hearted lover really wants to see some happy couple strolling hand in hand under blue skies in the park? And how thrilled can you be for an acquaintance who has gotten a huge promotion at work when you have just lost your job? It’s an honest reaction to be resentful and wish the other party were equally miserable. Honest, but not very admirable.
Having said that, I’ve noticed another category of individuals who view misery in yet another way. They’re the ones who like to play the misery comparison game. If only they realized that everyone experiences loss in different degrees. It’s difficult to rate human sorrows on a scale that would be universally applicable to everyone.
So, we become angry or resentful of someone mourning the death of a pet when we have lost someone we love deeply. It’s like the parent who tells a child, “Stop that crying over nothing, or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” Who’s to say that a 17-ear-ld girl who’s just been jilted by her “first love” boyfriend doesn’t hurt any less than the wife who has lost her husband of many years? Of course, we feel more compassion for the widow, but don’t short-change the sorrow of the teenager either. There are no real winners in the misery competition.
In her book On Grief and Grieving, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross presents a poignant illustration of the pitfalls in making assumptions about who’s hurting the most. The author tells of Brian who had to have his leg amputated due to diabetes. The loss was overwhelming to him, and he felt resentful of others who enjoyed good health and both legs. Then, during a rehabilitation session, he felt embarrassed for his self-pity when he saw a man who had lost both legs. The next day, he saw a man who had both legs, but needed a cane to walk. Later they had a chance to talk. Brian complained bitterly about the diabetes and the loss of his leg while acknowledging that the man who had no legs was worse off. The man with the cane said he had gotten hurt in an auto accident which caused a minor back injury, and he was in rehab to regain his strength. Still comparing losses, Brian responded, “Well, at least you have two legs!” His companion answered, “Yes, I do, but I also lost my wife and baby in that accident.”
Someone else’s sorrow may seem greater or lesser than your own, but all losses are so individual that comparisons are deceptive. Don’t try to comfort yourself by assuming a superior attitude of suffering by comparison. And, don’t try to comfort a grieving person by pointing out that their situation could be worse, or “look on the bright side.” It almost never works.
Some of this good advice comes from the Kubler-Ross book, and some of it comes from me — a storm-battered curmudgeon who has seen a lot of loss and dealt with it in some strange and stupid ways. I, too, have played the misery comparison game, and after years of participation, have discovered a basic truth: Just like sin doesn’t come in sizes, neither does sorrow. Sin is sin, and misery is misery.
What I can share at this stage of my life is an alternative. It’s called “attitude of gratitude.” This game, which is played solo, consists of chanting a two-part mantra; two examples follow:
The bad news is … It’s been raining for three days straight!
But the good news is … I have an umbrella, the roof doesn’t leak, and the new grass sod needs water.
The bad news is … The baby woke me up crying at three o’clock in the morning, and I have to be at work at seven!
But the good news is … It’s just a dirty diaper and not a trip to the emergency room with a high fever, thank God.
Practice this turn-it-around technique whenever misery strikes, and don’t forget the “Thank God” part at the end.
Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.