There’s a tendency I have in the best of times which has doubled down in this turbulent state of things. My tendency is to compare my pain. I compare my suffering to someone else’s: someone I know, someone I read about or someone I made up. If my suffering doesn’t rank high enough, any feelings I have about it are invalid.
You can see how this would become a problem during a global pandemic. Here’s how it plays out externally: I’m on a Zoom call with my Bible study. We’re just talking about life: how everyone’s coping, what we’re doing to keep sane. I bring up something tough about having a six month-old during this time. I almost instinctively add, “But I can’t imagine having school-age kids or more kids right now – I know I have it easy. You guys are crushing it.” Thankfully, my Bible study friends are well-adjusted people and they encourage me despite my back-peddling.
This, however, is how it plays out internally: I’m having a hard day. The high from my at-home workout has worn off, my husband is working in his garage office, I make the mistake of reading some news, my baby is doing something babies do, and I just get overwhelmed. And I tell myself, “This shouldn’t be that hard. You have one kid, and his life hasn’t changed a lot with this quarantine. There are people sick, people out of work, people losing loved ones. There are people trying to homeschool kids and maintain their full-time jobs. Permission to feel overwhelmed: denied.”
Here’s the problem with that thinking: it doesn’t work. On the recommendation from a friend, I recently listened to a tremendously helpful podcast by Dr. Brené Brown on comparative suffering. She released it toward the beginning of the pandemic response in the United States. It’s only 25 minutes, and I would highly recommend it. Check it out here.
Brown, a professor focused on emotions research, points out comparative suffering is based on the myth that empathy is finite. I think if I give myself compassion around a feeling, I won’t have enough for those who “really need it.”
This doesn’t breed compassion. This thinking breeds only one thing: shame. I now consider myself a bad person because I’m overwhelmed when someone else has it worse. Feelings told to go away because they don’t rank high enough don’t listen. They just metastasize. To make matters worse, when I feel shame, I am focused on myself. My only thought about others is how they may be judging me. In trying to avoid running out of compassion, I dry up my supply.
Conversely, empathy is an others-focused emotion. It is an antidote for shame. I only think of myself when expressing empathy to draw on my experience and imagine how someone else is feeling. Empathy breeds more empathy. The more I show, the more there is to give.
What does this mean for a follower of Jesus? Reflecting on and working through my predisposition for comparative suffering has brought me to this passage over and over again:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.2 Corinthians 1:3-5
These verses lay out the idea of compounding empathy. As with all God’s blessings, there is no “end user” of compassion. We are given comfort so that we may comfort others.
The passage also clearly says we’ll have troubles. It doesn’t say, “God will comfort people who really need it, and you can maybe help with that.” It doesn’t say, “When your pain hits an eight or higher on a scale of ten, you will be dispensed some comfort.” No, it says God comforts us in all our troubles.
So what do I do when I feel I’m about to compare my troubles to someone else’s?
I remember there’s comfort for me (2 Corinthians 1:3). I remember I serve a Savior who empathizes with me in my weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). I remember there is no condemnation for me (Romans 8:1). I remember my sin is blotted out by the greatness of God’s compassion (Psalm 51:1).
Colossians 3:12 calls us, “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved,” to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Putting them on like a garment is a holistic and personal exercise. It means I am compelled to show myself the kindness I want to extend to others.
My God is the God of comfort, not of shame. Following Jesus means I’m free to feel, to sit with my thoughts and feelings and show myself compassion so I have a well to draw on when others need empathy. If I tap into His eternal spring of love, kindness, and understanding, I can continue to be a blessing to others until we’re all comforted in the arms of Jesus.
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