We all have different experiences and paths in our lives. Even the exact same moment can be experienced very differently from one person to the next. Some people face enormous challenges in their lives some far fewer. Some people sadly experience egregious trauma while others live their lives relatively unscathed. The two truths which hold consistent through all are that we will always be impacted most powerfully by our own experiences, joyous or painful, and that we all experience pain in our lives even if our definitions of pain can differ profoundly.
Our experiences shape our perceptions thus the more potent and impactful the experience the more it will shape and potentially dominate our perceptions of the world around us. Someone who spends their life surrounded by loving and trustworthy people will approach the world with that as their baseline, whereas someone whose formative experiences have been ones of anger and betrayal and abuse will view the same world from a very different starting point. The same room full of people can simultaneously seem to one person open and inviting while to another deceitful and latently malevolent depending on whose eyes it is being viewed through.
This disparity of perspectives is a core part of the struggles for those who are outside societal norms or cultural attitudes in two main ways. Firstly, even moments or scenarios which have no deliberate exclusionary intentions can have precisely that impact simply because they extol and reinforce the norms and attitudes those who differ are outside of. Family oriented holiday celebrations can be extremely painful for those without family, weddings can be difficult for those who struggle with being single, venerated shows and movies can seem alienating to those who don’t see any representation of themselves or only ones which are derogatory.
Secondly, even those who have the same ‘difference’ can have enormously varied experiences of it. Someone from an area of rich and supportive ethnic diversity will not have the same direct experiences with racism as someone from an area saturated with open bigotry and hatred. Some queer people have relatively smooth and painless coming out experiences while for others it can be a traumatic life or death scenario.
Having been through more intense struggles or traumatic experiences doesn’t make a person’s pain more legitimate than those who have been through less. Those who have suffered through more severe or pervasive hardships may certainly need more time and support to heal and cope but that in no way dismisses the pains of others. Pain is pain, and it is subjective and relative to each person’s life. Regardless of where it might be rated on a scale of 1 to 10 if it exists to be rated then it exists. A harmful event does not need to be drastic or horrific to have a powerful impact on a person’s life.
That may seem somewhat plain and obvious, if altruistic, but one of the unfortunate offshoots of our ‘call out’ culture has become the tendency for oppressed and victimized groups to turn on one another. It is born out of several sources, some legitimate and others not so much, but it generates an attitude and atmosphere of divisiveness and contention which serves only those who wish to see those minority groups further and continually marginalized. As far as the legitimate sources go three which are at the top of the list are the reflexive lashing out pain causes, the limited resources marginalized groups have to vie for, and the fact that suffering is not a state known for promoting the most rational or methodical thinking.
When something hurts us our survival reflex is to strike out at it. Something bites us we swat at it. It’s natural and automatic and sadly the reason those closest to us or trying to help us often get lashed at just as much, or more, than those who have hurt us in the first place. Being hurt generates anger, anger needs a target, and anger doesn’t tend to be all that picky about it.
There are unfortunately only so many supports and resources available, at the organizational level or even the simply personal. There are only so many dollars, so many programs, so many minutes in the day. Tragically this means having to triage their allocation. The most egregious and severe situations need to be addressed first but even defining how to measure that assessment can be incredibly challenging given that those in need are rarely the ones in charge of dispersing the supports and, as already stated, our own experiences will always loom largest in our own perceptions.
Suffering is an awful state to be in. Not only because of the involved pain but because it can be almost completely incapacitating. When we are hurting it can be near impossible to think or react clearly. At a primal level our drive is to stop hurting which, again, is natural and automatic and not very conducive to patient ‘big picture’ thinking. The last thing we want to hear when we are hurting is that we have to wait our turn, even if that is the inescapable truth of the circumstances we are faced with.
As for the less legitimate sources there is one primary force which can be either subtly or blatantly at work and that is the deliberately divisive interference by those who wish to reinforce and continue existing marginalizations. It is a time honored, and sadly all too effective, tactic of oppressive groups to maintain their position of power by keeping those they seek to oppress divided and fighting amongst themselves instead of uniting and focusing their energies against them.
Hate begets hate and those who seek to pervade it are all too happy to sew discord and then gaslight those divisions whenever it suits their purposes. It can be an incredibly difficult thing to fight because there isn’t much one can do against someone who is comfortable with using the suffering of others for their own personal gain.
So how do we combat this? How do we combat not only our own base reflexes but also the manipulations of others? As difficult as it can often be we need to take several deep breaths and do our best to remember :
- Everyone experiences pain in their lives. We are entitled to our pain as is everyone else.
- Our own pain and suffering will always loom largest in our minds. It’s not selfish, simply natural.
- Just because we are hurting does not mean we can do know wrong. Victims of discrimination are still capable of it themselves and while our own suffering can sometimes cause us to lash out it is never a blank check excuse for causing harm to others.
- Asking for our pain to be acknowledged does not mean demanding it be treated as superior or superceding to someone else’s. Oppressing someone else in pain harms everyone.
- Others who are suffering are not the enemy. Their experiences and definitions of suffering may be different but we must do our best to keep our energies and reactions focused on those who are truly causing it not on further victimizing other victims.
- Are we seeking change or punishment? Preventing future wrong and punishing the wrongdoer are not the same thing. Deterrence can be part of prevention but if true change is what we seek we have to keep that end goal front and center no matter how much our natural inner animal wants its pound of flesh.
No life is ever entirely perfect or entirely awful. Joy can be found amidst the bleakest circumstances and even the most joyous lives know pain. There may be countless things which differ and separate us but that we all experience pain is something universally shared as is the fact that suffering rarely brings out the best angels of our nature.
Recovery, healing, corrective change can all be slow and exhausting processes so it is vital we all do our best to remember our shared vulnerability. The moment our happiness requires the denial, dismissal, or erasure of other people’s suffering we all lose.