Competitive Suffering

Back when I was writing about my experience as a grieving widow in the public eye, I described a phenomenon called the “circles of affectedness.” I noted how after 9/11, many of us organized ourselves (or were herded) into groups or categories according to how directly we were impacted by the terrorist attack. “The closer to 9/11 one was, either by geography or personal loss,” I wrote, “the more special one seemed to become.” At the same time, I picked up on a perhaps unconscious competition taking place among the survivors and family members, egged on by a media machine hell-bent on finding and promoting the most tear-jerking stories possible. Who was most affected, a widow with small children, a mother who’d lost two sons?

This competition offended me. I hurt and in my grief, I sometimes imagined no one could understand how deeply. But that meant I couldn’t fully understand how someone else might grieve either — a survivor, an observer, a citizen. Who compares levels of sorrow anyway?

Humans, it would seem.

Americans in particular are all about comparing and contrasting the good, the bad, and anything in between. Size, shape, age, education, financial status/situation, upbringing, gender (traditional or atypical), achievement, social media presence, your mom’s meatloaf recipe must be measured: You name it and we will hold it up next to something similar and assess its comparative (and often highly subjective) value.

Product promotion is dependent on comparison. Advertising routinely points out the flaws in the competition along with the benefits of the promoted product. Entertainment pitches for books, TV scripts and film concepts high and low often reference what succeeded before but with a twist (“like ‘The Good Wife’ but set in a hospital”). More and more publishers and agents ask authors to suggest five titles their new book most resembles.

The man in the White House thrives on comparison. He appears to favor superlatives; whatever he references is the “biggest,” “tallest,” “smartest,” “highest,” “most,” or, “worst,” or, conversely, the “meanest,” “tiniest” or “least.” It doesn’t matter whether his frame of reference is a policy, a television show, an individual, or an insult, and it never matters whether his claim is true. This is the new reality in which we find ourselves.

The great job, the superior child, the perfect body and the ideal marriage may be media inventions, but they don’t keep us from staring at our friend’s Instagram pictures and wondering why our lives are so dull? We are doomed to fall short.

Which brings me back to comparisons of suffering.

It seems most people who share their stories of despair are looking to instruct or connect or reach out to others going through something similar. Some seek to gather strength in shared experiences. The #MeToo hashtag is meant to demonstrate how wide-reaching harassment is and how easily women and men have accepted such behavior as acceptable. In fact, many women I know are hesitant to share their stories because they aren’t as horrendous as someone else’s. “I was followed but I wasn’t attacked.” “Catcalls aren’t as bad as groping.” Here too, the need to compare affects what we admit, even to ourselves.

Some who post their stories seek sympathy or attention. Some want advice; others really don’t. Still others seek self-expression or catharsis. For some, typing the words on a screen seems easier and more immediate than talking to a person, assuming there’s anyone to talk with. For others, posting is the only option. Let’s face it; we’re confronting a retreating government and reduced support in real life. Where can we turn except to our virtual community?

Social media allows us to share our sorrows as well as our triumphs. In that respect, it can provide a valuable service. But misfortune doesn’t need to be a competition any more than accomplishment does. It’s not about who does it best or feels it most. It’s about our shared humanity.

About Nikki

Author of non-fiction books HOPE IN SMALL DOSES and BECAUSE I SAY SO as well as numerous published essays. Her new novel, THE FORMER ASSASSIN, is due out January 2018.

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