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Haiti & Comparative Misery

January 23, 2010

Haiti’s devastating earthquake and the scale of human suffering has humbled us all.  It has humbled us, it has moved us to altruistic deeds, and it has momentarily put into  relative perspective our own smaller suffering.  Even celebrities at the Golden Globe awards spoke of the awkward juxtaposition between  presenting a happy Hollywood persona and being all too mindful of the nexus of suffering a continent away (but I always knew that Meryl Streep was a human being even more than a star).  It is to our credit, and even to our benefit (as studies on depression show), to extend ourselves to others, which reciprocally helps both giver and receiver.

But then the reality shifts and we lose focus on the suffering of others. We return to the annoyances, the irritants and the true concerns, limitations and hardships of our own situations and lives. I see this in my life and in my therapy practice. Some clients ask, “How can I worry about my problems when others have much bigger problems?”  It’s apples and oranges I tell them. Our problems don’t shrink because another has a bigger problem. We are left with the charge of addressing our own lives. More often, when a worldwide calamity isn’t in focus, couples pit themselves against each other in a contest of competitive misery. “You think you had it hard?  My childhood, life, day (fill in the blank) wasn’t a cakewalk you know.” Or, “You have no idea what it’s like in my shoes.”

What’s the answer to both comparative and competitive misery? First, recognize that it’s not useful.  The suffering of another doesn’t change yours, though it may give you perspective. By all means invest in others and in helping as you can; but don’t forget yourself.  Hillel put it best:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2010 8:45 pm


    Lovely question. I have been a practitioner for 38 years and have often had patients compare themselves to one disaster or another or even to the tradgedies of Ethiopian children dying of hunger, etc.

    I always and immediately empathize with their true concern for the pain of others but I affirm that the frustration they have with their spouse (ie) is “their” pain and cannot be compared with that of another. I emphasize that each person has a “God given right” to experience their own pain. This is partly a therapeutic intervention but it is also an existential philosophical construct that allows the patient to have their pain without guilt.


  2. January 24, 2010 8:46 pm

    Thanks for your very helpful comment, John. I hadn’t thought of the philosophical construct, but it’s so true. Best, B.

  3. January 25, 2010 12:53 am

    From Judy:
    Another thoughtful, to the point perspective.

  4. January 25, 2010 12:54 am

    Thanks Judy…I always enjoy receiving your comments. Best, bh

  5. January 25, 2010 12:55 pm

    Wow, Hillel. What a classy blog! Laura

  6. January 25, 2010 12:56 pm

    Thanks Laura…One of the earliest quotes I learned when studying contextual theory. All the best, B.

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