by Wendy Keller
I was seven years old when Caesar died. I remember his cold, lifeless little body curled up in the corner of his Habitrail. I went to pick him up after school and he felt like a baseball. I ran to my mother sobbing.
I felt guilty beyond all belief. I’d really meant to refresh his water bottle before school! Had I killed my precious pet? I felt incredibly sad, even though the noise from his squeaky wheel kept me up some nights. I stayed sad for days, maybe weeks. My grief over that little hamster was 100%. It was the worst loss I’d suffered so far.
And that’s where you come in.
This is what the late Caesar taught me, but I wouldn’t learn it until 19 years later when I was grieving the deaths of my children and people kept saying to me “Your suffering, your loss is so much greater than mine.” He taught me that No. No, it isn’t greater. It’s different, it may take more or less time to return to some version of emotional equilibrium, but ALL LOSSES ARE 100% painful if they are happening to YOU.
Imagine this. You’re cooking dinner. You’ve got the TV on and one of those commercials comes on about the kids starving in South America. You’re feeling sad looking at that hungry, dirty little street urchin. You’re thinking about that as you carry your plate toward the table, not paying attention. WHAM!!! Suddenly you slam your toe into the table leg! You put your plate down and hop around in great pain for a few minutes! Ouch!
What hurts greater? The kid in South America or your stubbed toe?
Your BRAIN says, “Of course that poor kid. Maybe I should make a donation…” but YOUR body, YOUR emotions instantly diverted completely to your throbbing toe, right?
That’s because the stubbed toe is happening to you. We all feel the same basic emotions: sadness, pain, loss, anger, etc. And because everyone feels the same emotions to a greater or lesser extent over the things they suffer in their own life, you’re never alone. You are surrounded by people who “get it”. You can’t tell the heart of someone whose wife just left him that he shouldn’t feel bad because his children are still alive. Pain and grief can’t be measured like that. Your suffering is 100% real and consuming to you. Your brain can say, “Oh, what’s she’s going through is worse” but that’s not going to make you feel better.
So now what?
If everyone suffers, then anyone can be comforting to you and show you compassion. And you can practice showing compassion and giving comfort back to people. Pain is pain, suffering is suffering. What you’re going through may seem no big deal to someone else, and you may not understand how they could be upset about what’s happening to them. But you’re both enduring negative emotions. Those emotions can increase your ability to engage in a caring way with humanity. (Not that that’s compensation for suffering! It’s merely a by-product!)
Try this: let other people comfort you without discounting their qualifications or their understanding of your pain. And practice showing extraordinary compassion with all the people you encounter, because even if what they’re enduring seems “small” to you, for them it’s likely to be a big deal.
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“The Top Ten Tips to Coping with Crisis”?