In the public mental health system, I work with people with mental illness, who sometimes have histories of horrific trauma, and also face homelessness and substance dependence.
To me, their hard-fought battles for freedom and redemption illustrate the depth of the innate human longing and ability to thrive that everyone can tap into. But another innate human tendency is to separate "us" from "them" on the basis of even the most trivial differences, and it's a strong one. People may assume that they can't relate to those with life experience so far outside the “normal” range.
Not long ago, I abstained from participating in a workshop because the other panelists felt that the “average Joe” attendees would be alienated by a discussion of the outer limits of human resilience, rather than inspired by them.
Yet, are people at the extremes so different from you or me? Well, yes and no. The details of each person’s life obviously vary a lot in their objective depths and heights, but the thing is, you can’t appraise someone else’s experience of life solely on the basis of the things that have happened to them.
Your ups and downs are subjective.
For one thing, pain comes in different varieties. Clearly, most people could never understand the trauma borne by someone with the childhood experience of discovering a murdered sibling’s body, for instance.
On the other hand, someone having borne that major trauma may not be able to comprehend the different flavor and depth of pain carried by the person who, in middle age, has never been kissed or received the words “I love you.” That kind of trauma is like a pebble in the shoe, progressing from an irritant to a festering wound, and ultimately to a callous providing protection at the expense of sensation.
What's more, it's impossible to gauge someone else's life experience objectively because even their own experience of it isn't objective. Rather, as with physical pain, individuals’ psychoemotional pain thresholds vary because of the intrapersonal, social, biological, and environmental factors that color one's experience of a situation.
What may seem to be a minor slight to someone else may touch a deep, open wound within us that others cannot comprehend. Anyone who has been told“you’re too sensitive!” probably understands this.
Putting your life story together
How you respond to life's insults also depends on how well your life narrative can accommodate a new situation that disrupts the existing storyline. As the events of your life unfold, the way you integrate them into your existing life story is influenced by what has come before, your idea of who you are and where you’re headed, and your flexibility.
While life events themselves may be objective checkpoints along a horizontal timeline, the way they're organized vertically into a storyline is open to interpretation. From the driver's seat, our experience is entirely relative and subjective.
I once met a person who, while riding his motorcycle before a race, accidentally ran over and killed a man who stepped in front of him in the pit area. He thought little of it because the pedestrian had been careless for walking there; for others, this might have spawned a lifetime of self-recrimination.
One person's setback is another's disaster. One person's step up is another's summit. You really have no way of knowing how another would experience your situation, or vice versa.
Letting go of comparing our life to others'
Often, we don't even have enough information about others' lives to even begin to make a valid comparison anyway. For different reasons, people can construct public images that are incongruent with their private or internal lives, and they vary in their tendency to disclose the darker chapters of their lives—and the lighter chapters, for that matter—to others.
So, even with the person you think you know well, you may still be working with incomplete data. (Sometimes we fill in the blanks with our own projections, arriving at the conclusion that others’ life circumstances are better than they actually are—which is really both a reflection and a determinant of how we feel about ourselves.)
Ultimately, all we can really do is acknowledge the uniqueness of the struggles we each face, and that all of us struggle, one way or another. Who has escaped the sting of betrayal, the loneliness of not being seen or heard when in need, feelings of sadness or even despair, or any number of other wounds?
Measuring the caprices of your life against the next person's can leave you feeling hardened and alone, unable to tap your heart's fullest capacity to extend and receive compassion.
When you let go of the tendency to objectify, quantify, and compare the magnitude of your joy and pain with another’s, you may find yourself coming into a more expansive connection with others, in which your heart opens a bit to them, and you feel like you have more company.