"How is your husband feeling?" I asked my colleague, feigning sincerity as I was asking more out of sheer politeness than of genuine concern. A pang of guilt still rings through me for my insincerity, especially since it's my co-worker who I don't care for, rather than her innocent ailing husband. She offered little detail in her reply, being careful to match my somewhat obvious disinterest in the conversation. I was gracious of her valiant effort to at least fast forward through as many awkward pauses as possible. As she droned on and on, my mind was left to wonder. I was just beginning to space out when that ever so slight part of my brain that was still engaged in the conversation picked up on something she was saying. Her voice had turned bitter, as if there was an unpleasant taste in her mouth. What rolled off her pretentious tongue next really shouldn't have come as surprise to me, but it did. Apparently this woman, in all of her prestige and power, didn't have a regard for other people's problems given her own situation at home. After all, how could anyone else's problems added up together even remotely compare to what she was going through at home?
Maybe I should have given her a high-five for saying what a lot of us tend to think, but would never dream of admitting to our loved ones...family...friends. It's incredibly easy for us - me, you - to get so wrapped up into our own problems that we tend to lose sight of reality. We become so absorbed in the things that are troubling us - however big or small they may be - that we often forget about the one thing that ties together all of humanity. We are not alone. Instead of embracing the reality of this, we crawl deeper into our holes, creating barriers amongst us. We start to compare our woes to those of our friends and enemies. The deeper we crawl, the thicker the walls become, until we no longer even reach out to the loved ones we once so desperately needed. Of course, I realize, it's okay to bottle our emotions at times. To internalize our thoughts and feelings. To simply not want to reach out to a friend. I get this. I've been there before. And sometimes it's nice to throw a pity party for no one else but y-o-u, complete with a bottle of wine, a pint (or two) of ice cream, a sappy chic flick, hell even a goody bag filled with candy to get you through the next day...you get the point. And sometimes, it's even okay to feel as though everyone else but you can live a carefree life without a worry in the world. The danger occurs when you don't resurface and you tread in the waters of comparison, which is exactly what my co-worker was doing.
I have been on both sides of this spectrum. I have been the one to compare (Oh you're going to a funeral? Try going to 20 by the time you're 20. Oh you know someone with cancer? So do I. She passed away when I was 15). It's easy to be this person. To be the one who thinks everyone else has it easier. To think you're the only one with the fabulous luck of the Irish. To latch onto the "of course this would only happen to me" attitude. Being the other person, however, often comes as a slap in the face. It sneaks up on you and bam!, out of no where someones asking you "Who do you think you are?! You think you have problems!?" This happened to me recently. Someone very near and dear to me said very matter of factly that her problems were of way more importance than anything I could possibly have going on in my life right now.
Is that so?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But what's the benefit of letting ourselves sink so low as to compare our problems to those of others. You don't win if you have more troubles than your best friend. Your life isn't of more value or importance based on how many problems you have. Perhaps when we stop comparing and start listening, we (myself included) will realize we're not alone and that we can lean on each other to get through the tough times. Sadly, this world is in such short supply of this invaluable resource. Quality listening skills. Not hearing. But actually engaging our minds to listen to one another without having to talk over one another.
In the past few weeks I've had the opportunity (yes, the opportunity, not the obligation) to listen to several teenagers who came into my office to express some very personal fears and anxiety provoking issues. At one point one of the girls dismissively said, "I'm sorry. My problems must seem so small and stupid. You're so much older, your problems are probably much more important. I shouldn't be wasting your time." I quietly let her words sink in. At such a young and innocent age, this girl was already belittling her own personal woes. What, I wondered, is she going to do when she's experienced more that life has to offer? Sit in silence and never "bother" anyone with her feelings? I wanted to grab her and shake the absurdity out of her. Were her issues ones of life or death? No. Did they seem as significant as the constant battle my friend's brave two year old daughter is going through right now? No. But the fact that this teenager chose to open up to me meant that she needed someone to listen to her. She needed to know that she wasn't alone.
And so I put my own worries aside and listened. I didn't compare, I just listened. When she left my office later on, I knew she wasn't alone. Neither was I.
And maybe, just maybe, my co-worker needs someone to sincerely listen to her, as well.