Let’s begin with a story. I wrote my last essay on shame, but it and the prior essay were rooted in a highly cerebral and white-collar context. What a bizarre thing it’s been, though, to be asked by many people here in Colombia about my wounds in Canada. Familial and childhood pain, sure–that’s something widely understood. Depression and suicidal ideation? Eh, 50/50. But… to try to explain becoming non-viable in an academic setting and feeling a devastating loss of self because of it?
To try to explain this story, especially, to some of my friends who’ve been displaced from Venezuela due to starvation, and other resource shortages? Who take whatever under-the-table jobs they can, to raise as much as they can to send back to trapped families?
Or to friends from regions where even now social-leaders–indigenous rights activists, environmentalists, simple community members trying to stabilize farms and social services–are being murdered at the highest rate of all South American countries, in part from a vacuum of FARC being filled by El Chapo Mexican cartel operatives?
Or to friends who lost family members to the shadow of violence cast over Medellín in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s?
Uh. Let’s just say that this is not a conversation I have often.
And yet, that’s a problem–because when we rationalize our way out of connecting with differently suffering people, we encourage ourselves to live in information silos, with a sheltered approach to building perspective, resilience, and empathy.
Suffice it to say: It’s not a very good path to becoming a better humanist.
Oh, and we know why we do it, of course. It’s all very logical, isn’t it? We’re afraid to be vulnerable. We’re afraid of being dismissed. We’re afraid of the jerks who will tell us “Oh, that’s nothing!” and turn pain into a competitive sport. We’re afraid, too, of people who tell us that we “have to” be thankful for [X], at least.
But here’s where we mess up:
We assume that people suffering at a different extreme will automatically be among those who dismiss our pain. Not true. The ones who are truly suffering at a different extreme tend to have no interest in bringing up their pain in front of you, once they see that your own pain is of a different (probably shallower) depth.
Who actually makes pain and trauma into competitive sport? As with most of the problems in our world, the most toxic people can be found in positions of perceived precarity. Take a corollary from the last U.S. presidential election, where educated white people with the most tenuous hold on a middle-class existence let themselves be sold the lie that the reason for their economic precarity was other people trying to get to the middle-class, and not a system of break-away profiteering on the part of CEOs while everyone else sees fewer benefits from their economic output.
It’s the same with pain-as-a-competitive-sport: the fear that if someone else articulates their pain, that pain might just lead to a reallocation of resources away from your pain. So you attack the hurting, instead of the system that makes these resources for aid so meagre to begin with. (More on this later.)
This toxic group also includes people who are past their greatest adversity–who have survived it, and found their rest, and from that rest now have the means to snap at someone still struggling: “That’s nothing. Let me tell you about the time…” These folks, having found their comfort, are now uneasy about dwelling on any storytelling that might lead them to lose that comfort. It’s I-got-mine-ism at its finest, and most wasteful.
But as for the people actually suffering at different extremes?
If I grumble about my work-commute with the displaced Venezuelan who gives me a pastelito con queso in the morning, he’s generous–but not at all atypically so. So incredibly many of the displaced Venezuelans suffering here in Medellín are outwardly cheerful and supportive and kind. Heck, even when I was robbed at gunpoint last year around this time, one of the two very nervous perpetrators was visibly ashamed when he saw my fear at being made to sit with them both a little longer; I could tell he didn’t want me to think he was after anything but the pesos my cellphone would yield. We talked about his family in Caracas until two other men showed up to be robbed along the same path.
So who’s making a competitive sport of pain, then, when I feel ashamed for grumbling over something so relatively minor in the presence of a displaced friend? Me.
And that’s not always the worst thing to feel, if then turned to more productive ends.
What We Lose When We Avoid Context
There’s a great deal of talk in North American culture of everyone’s pain being valid, and the importance of finding people who understand how deeply something has hurt you. As such, we often save specific complaints for the “right” company–which is certainly often a very decent thing to do. Having a 3-year-old who keeps you awake all night, for instance, can be an agonizing problem–but it’s not the sort of thing you share with a friend who just lost her baby to SIDS. (Unless she asks you about it!)
But there’s a danger of using “decency” as an excuse for living in a bubble, because every time we seek out a community of likeminded grievers, we’re expressly building segregated peer groups and social networks. Instead of our pain inspiring empathy, then, often this leads us to live with a distorted sense of our pain’s context, which in turn keeps us fixated on reinforcing our specific stories of pain as currency for continued membership in said group. We can thus end up retreading the same internal ground ad nauseum, instead of thinking about how to look and build outwardly from trauma.
Worst of all, this is deeply counterproductive to genuine healing. We might think we’re simply being respectful by hanging out only with those who feel similar pain (which is NOT the same, nota bene, as seeking counsel from those who have similar experience), but often we’re also putting our trauma ahead of a lesson we all so frequently need to revisit–both to improve the practice of our humanism and also to heal from the trauma itself.
We’re forgetting–secular folks, I’m talking directly to you*–that the universe doesn’t give a damn about any of us.
People care. People are the only fully self-aware beings who can.
So when we choose to isolate ourselves from other forms of suffering so as to protect the immensity of our own pain, we’re making a conscious choice to treat empathy as something finite, when in reality it is something we generate.
Something we need to keep generating, furthermore–because it doesn’t exist in the cosmos otherwise.
*Religious humanists: My corollary for you would be that your faiths often exhort you to be the change you want to see in the world, following the classic joke about a man praying for aid in a flood who refuses two boats and a helicopter, then dies and asks his god, “Why didn’t you help me?” And is told, “What do you mean? I sent two boats and a helicopter!” Prayer may well be for you a useful starting point for personal clarity and strength, but I know you know it cannot be the only thing one does to improve others’ lots upon this earth. In this effort, to deepen and refine our commitment to one another every day, I know we stand united, and are all the stronger for it.
Why We Do ItIt bears noting, too, that many of us are not ready to heal from our trauma, and you should damned well not try to force them. This essay is not a call-to-arms to shame people for being trapped in their trauma, consumed by their trauma, and defined by their trauma. Shame is not the path to breaking traumatization as an everyday routine.
Rather, let’s look at this compassionately. When our trauma involves the loss of another, for instance, it’s easy to understand why “healing” can be terrifying. “Healing” could mean essentially “giving up” a whole person, and the value we place on our own lives in the cosmos makes it difficult to confront the reality that at some point each of our stories fully ends. We can’t “let go” of another because it offends both our loyalty and our desire to see their story somehow still go on. Healing from grief of this sort requires recognizing that we still carry our dead in our hearts and our days, and that this is going to have to be enough. But it’s difficult. It takes time.
However, trauma often also becomes an explanation of why we are in one position in our lives and not another, and that’s where the threat of insularity runs highest. Because healing from trauma in these cases–familial, from childhood, from a dramatic change in life circumstances–means moving to a place of personal agency… and that means moving to a state, in our culture, where our failures and even our mundane life outcomes are our “fault” again.
Conversely, though, there is status in trauma–not a good status! not even a status that guarantees us safety or security! but a status nonetheless!–and often hurting people will cling to the familiarity of that particular status rather than risk the open waters anew.
So yes, it’s logical to want to entrench ourselves in the singularity of our trauma–but it’s also counterproductive. It hurts hurting people immensely, and it keeps us from lessons that we maybe didn’t even realize we needed to learn.
A Counterpoint for Failure
One of my Venezuelan friends works six days a week not far from my apartment, alongside her husband and his brother. They’re a warm little family, for all the grief they carry in the background of their lives. The brother is 19, and this will be his first Christmas away from his mother’s pan de jamón–a fact that makes him well up with tears, and as such should not be dwelled upon. He and his brother are from a family with 10 children. My main friend–I’ll call her “María”–is from a family with 14, and we’ve joked in the past about how her family is the small coastal village where she’s from.
Their families are lucky, being coastal; the land provides to some extent, even when the Venezuelan government does not. But a tremendous number of amenities are not available from fishing and fruit trees alone, so María, her husband, and her brother-in-law work incredibly hard to make money that can be sent back home to help.
One day, while I was visiting them at the store, I was told that the brother had taken up a new job with Rappi, and María’s husband and I talked about the possibility of him studying English independently between deliveries. Then the husband segued with pride to María’s own hope of going to university one day, except that the costs were so high. He wanted to be able to support her in her dream of becoming an architect, but… all of this was far out of reach at present.
When María showed up, she explained just how far this dream was from reality. University terms are around 7 million Colombian pesos apiece–just a little under 9 months of the national minimum monthly wage, which I highly doubt either of my displaced friends was earning. And there are two terms, of course, in a year.
“Right,” I said. “So this is a long-term plan you’re saving for.”
Ah, but no–María smiled and gently reminded me that there were no savings, because all the money she and her husband and brother could make, above and beyond for basic living expenses, went straight home to their suffering families.
Right. Incredibly stupid of me. And there, then, was another moment of me feeling badly–just as I do after grumbling to the vendor I greet twice-daily outside my apartment.
But here’s where the lesson continued: I started thinking furiously, because of course a university-educated person is ingrained with the belief that putting oneself first to get educated is a far better investment in the long run. Yes, María might not be able to help her family in the short-term while studying, but after, oh! The salary an architect might command! So maybe I could rally my North American resources? Start a fund for her? Help her get the money she needed to put working to one side for a bit and study for a better future for herself and those around her?
Wait a second: I knew firsthand that going to university wasn’t a guarantee of escaping debt and garnering a stable life. Just how much of a gamble would her degree in architecture ultimately be, especially absent industry connections in a foreign land?
And hadn’t I chosen my grad school (poorly) because there was no question in my mind about being close to my sister while my nephews were very young? Plenty of more affluent students liked to tell me that this was a generous “choice”–but it doesn’t feel like a choice when your family is in need, and my family was in need, even in a relatively stable country. How could I even begin to imagine that María was ever going to abandon her family in Venezuela for the vague hope of a distant-future payout?
And finally–wasn’t I paying attention to María’s own outlook in all of this? My friend spoke happily enough about her dream as a dream, because she had also come fully to terms with the fact that life was now different–for her and for hundreds of thousands of fellow Venezuelans. She had looked that fact square in the eye, and made a choice: a choice to be grateful, a choice to be happy, a choice to find happiness and gratitude in what she did have. Her health. Her proud, supportive husband. The means to support her family in need. And her dreams, even if that was all they were ever going to be.
My own academic grief resurfaces when I fixate upon it, pressing down on it like a bruise and defining myself by the pain the memory yields.
Listening to the greater world around me doesn’t delegitimize that pain, or others in my life–but it does give me something else to attend to, and to learn from.
And that makes me pretty lucky–because again, you can’t just tell someone while they’re hurting, “Go look at that person hurting more, and more resiliently!”
We just have to hope, I guess, for the good fortune to be able to listen to a broader context, and the chance to be present in that broader context, when all the wounds in our hearts have convinced us that they define us–and worse, that empathy is a finite resource, instead of something very much under our generative command.