We can’t help but evaluate the difficult things that we go through and assign to them a value for how bad they are. Like the pain assessment chart hanging on the wall at the doctor’s office where you choose a level ranging from the yellow smiley face to a red face with x’s for eyes, we are constantly ranking the emotional trauma we experience in real time. The problem is we don’t stop with judging our own trials, at times we do this for other people as well.
I’ve had people say things to me like, “I know just what you are going through, my grandmother died last year.” A statement like that assigns a level to their experience and mine. Benign as it might be they are effectively saying our pain is the same — which can make you bristle a little bit on the inside. How can they compare losing a daughter to a grandmother? Old people die. That’s what happens. Not kindergarteners. That’s not the same. Intentional or not it belittles what I have gone through by forcing an unnecessary comparison.
Another person recently told me, “We have had to face the loss of my dad this year, but it’s nothing compared to what you’ve gone through.” Although this certainly didn’t hurt my feelings as they said it, I still found myself disagreeing with them. It was kind of them to acknowledge how unnatural it is for a parent to lose a child, but that doesn’t mean losing a parent is nothing. In this instance they minimized their own pain. What they have walked through isn’t any less difficult for them because of what I am facing. The fundamental problem is that this is still thinking based on comparison.
What I have discovered is that pain is extremely personal. It is impossible to feel anything except for what you are going through. If you have a finger chopped off it doesn’t matter if having your whole hand cut off hurts more — it is going to hurt like crazy for you right then. It’s the same way with all suffering. All we can know at any given moment is what we are experiencing. Until you go through something worse, the most difficult thing you have ever faced is the most difficult thing you have ever faced. At each new level of suffering it can be easy to think nothing could ever hurt more because it is the most you have ever hurt. Or to look at those facing “smaller trials” as though they are less painful than what you have gone through. As a result it is easy to inadvertently make people feel worse about what they are going through when you are really just trying to help.
Jesus is the only who fully understands anyone’s pain. As His agents of compassion our hearts desire should be to give people grace and room to hurt in their own way and pace. Making sure a person in trial knows you have felt just what they are feeling (and you haven’t, even if you have gone through nearly the exact same thing) isn’t as important as just being there for them. Sharing lessons you learned in pain are fine, but insisting that you know exactly which face on the chart they are at isn’t helpful. Attempts to empathize can backfire and come across as patronizing. We should try as much as possible to strip our words and our thinking of language that tries to force trials into bins and levels. Pain is personal.
Hebrews 4:15–16 “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”