Lately, I often find myself in the following situation: I’m talking with a friend and she’s venting to me about something, the way friends do. Her entire family had the flu at once, or she feels trapped in her job, or she and her husband are going through a rough patch.
And all the while, I’m sympathizing, nodding, giving a mini-pep talk — the things friends do. But then my friend stops herself mid-kvetch and says, “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t be complaining to you. Your situation is infinitely harder.”
Referring, of course, to the fact that my 6-year-old daughter has leukemia.
Which is, yes, a pretty damned hard situation. In fact, it’s the worst experience of my life thus far. But that doesn’t mean I mind people complaining to me about the worries in their own lives, even if they are minor by comparison.
Granted, if you go on for 10 minutes about how devastated you are that you found a dent in your Lexus, or how heartbroken you are that your nail salon no longer carries your fave color, I will be put off. (And perhaps wondering how we got to be friends in the first place.)
But if you’re talking about the stuff of life that tries us all, in ways big and small, I don’t mind in the least. I never for a second feel like you don’t have the right to be frustrated or disheartened just because I happen to be facing bigger problems right now.
And this isn’t just about you; it’s about me. Because if if you’re not allowed to complain about your situation, it means I’m not allowed to complain about mine either.
In the waiting room of the Jimmy Fund Clinic at Dana Farber, where I bring my daughter each week for chemo, I often see another “cancer mom” who not only has a son with leukemia; she is also confined to a wheelchair. I see families — who have left their homes in other countries to get treatment at this world-class institution — who don’t speak English, who are living here in limbo, without friends or relatives nearby. I see kids with serious, permanent disabilities caused by brain tumors.
And then there are the people I don’t see, but whose existence I am constantly aware of: the families who have lost their children to cancer. The families around the world without access to good medical care, whose children never had a chance to begin with.
Perspective is important. We should all keep in mind that our problems could be worse, and that all suffering is relative. This can help us feel less overwhelmed by our own challenges, more grateful for our many blessings, and more compelled to empathize with and help others.
But the suffering of other people doesn’t make our own any less real, or any less worthy of being shared with sympathetic friends. I don’t know how I’d manage if I couldn’t air my fears and frustrations about our situation with friends and family — even knowing, as I do, that others have it far worse.
So, please: Tell me about your work headaches, your difficult in-laws, your kids’ behavioral problems, your maxed-out Nordstrom credit card (well, OK, not that).
I feel for you. Honest.
For more by Jane Roper, click here.
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.