I’m sitting on a bench. Alone. Outside. It’s past dusk. Cold. No jacket or sweater. Waiting for the tow truck to come that promises to break me into my car. I can see the keys on the front seat. They taunt me.
As I shiver I think, “What am I complaining about? It’s not raining (for once). The girls are old enough to be home by themselves. I have an iPhone that enables me to text, manage email, even read a book. Buck up, Ronna. It could be worse.”
It. Could. Be. Worse.
Four simple words that get us into a heap o’ trouble.
I have conversations with people all the time. Sometimes really hard conversations. They’ve known loss or grief or harm. They’re awash in frustration or confusion or disappointment. They are lonely or miserable or sick. And I hear dialogue that eerily resembles my own: “It could be worse.” They then proceed to tell me of someone else whose story is definitely worse. As they talk, they manage to apply a gossamer-thin veneer of shame to their own experiences and feelings. It’s sheen plays tricks with them. Before they know it they talk themselves out of whatever they originally felt. Raw emotion gives way to obligatory compassion. You might recognize it. It sounds something like this:
“I shouldn’t complain. Compared to so-and-so, I don’t have it all that bad. I need to keep things in perspective. After all…”
…it could be worse.”
Though I can appreciate the compassion and perspective seemingly rife in this kind of reasoning, this comparing, this perspective-creating, it drives me crazy! And here’s why: when we tell ourselves “it could be worse” we discount the validity of our own story. We dissociate from our own circumstances, even our own emotions and tell ourselves to get it together. In effect, we tell ourselves that what we feel doesn’t matter, isn’t worthy of even being spoken about, and probably should just skulk back under the rock from which it came.
“Yes, my marriage is really hard. I’m pretty miserable almost all of the time, but I shouldn’t complain. At least I don’t have it as bad as _______________. I’m pretty sure her husband is having an affair. I should be grateful for what I have. It could be worse.”
“Yes, infertility is painful. I struggle to keep my spirits up when I feel such disappointment every 28 days. But I shouldn’t complain. At least I’m not ________________. Can you imagine? Losing a child at only five years of age? It could be worse.”
“I’ll admit, it’s tough trying to make a go of being self-employed; trying to juggle finances and time and just plain fear. But I shouldn’t complain. At least I’m not working at a job I hate like _________________. She’s totally miserable every single day. At least I get to choose who I spend my time with and how I manage my own schedule. It could be worse.”
Yes, it could be worse. Isn’t that always true? But it’s not worse. And what’s more, it doesn’t matter!
It’s your damn story! Live it, feel it, and complain about it if you want to. It’s probably legitimate!
Please don’t misunderstand me. In no way am I saying that a woman whose husband is having an affair, a parent who has just lost a child, or an employee who is suffering in a 9-5 reality are not deserving of sympathy. Of course they are! In the most generous, vast, and infinite ways possible. What I am saying is that our sympathy loses
at least an iota of its sincerity when it serves more profoundly as a shield from our own stuff. What I am saying is that we deserve our own sympathy, whether it could be worse, or not.
We resist this at nearly every turn – this truth-telling. And oh, how good we’ve gotten at it. We give ourselves a good talking to. We pull ourselves up from our bootstraps. We smile though our heart is breaking. In effect, we shut down the true, deep, and oft’ visceral emotion we feel.
To not feel what we feel is never good.
I’ll admit it: locking my keys in my car is not that big of a deal. Yes, it could be worse. But as I sat there and shivered, I realized I really wasn’t all that upset about the keys.
- I was upset about the last couple conversations I had with my eldest – how she treated me and how I responded in return. I felt angry. A bit defensive. Disrespected.
- I was upset about some palpably absent conversations with a friend today. I felt avoided. Unseen. Mildly hurt.
- I was upset that it cost me $150 to get out of Target today with only two bags of who-knows-what. I felt frustrated. Tense. Miserly.
- I was upset that when I finally got home loads of laundry and a night of housecleaning (for a real-estate agent’s showing tomorrow) awaited. I felt tired. Spent. Put-out.
The longer I reflected (and believe me, I had time), the more I realized that I had all kinds of emotions swirling around. Emotions that needed to be acknowledged (vs. ignored), parsed out (vs. shoved down), actually felt (vs. repressed) and legitimized (vs. discounted). And the longer I had to see my feelings for what they really were, the more I was able to let them out, let them be, let them go.
I’m not advocating pity-parties (though sometimes even those have their place). What I am advocating is to allow the feelings we actually have to actually be felt. They deserve (and eventually demand) to be expressed. Tell the truth. No matter what. Even if things could be worse.
And when things are worse? All the more reason to grieve, wail, rage, or scream. In fact, I’ll join you! In sympathy, for sure; but also in solidarity, in real knowing, in an awareness of how legitimate every single thing you feel is.
The tow truck came. He broke into my car. I retrieved my keys, turned the ignition, and headed back home.
And all the while I felt.