Wednesday, September 19, 2012

“Remember, There Is Always Someone Worse off Than You:” Is This A Valid Coping Mechanism?

A Silhouette of Sadness
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We’ve all heard this platitude before, and I wouldn’t blame you if you had some reservations about it.

After all, isn’t it a perversion of basic human decency to use another person’s suffering to improve our own circumstances? Shouldn’t the acknowledgment that others are suffering make us feel worse, not better? Does it demonstrate a lack of compassion that in some strange way we psychologically benefit from recognizing the distress of others?

No, no, and no. I don’t think it works that way at all.

The use of this coping mechanism does not indicate a lack of compassion or empathy. In fact, you almost certainly do feel empathetic toward the person or persons who you are comparing yourself to. This isn’t about that. This is about recalibrating your perspective.

By our very nature we tend to lament our losses and our misfortunes. This is not a useful trait, particularly if there’s nothing that we can do to improve our health problems. What we can do, however, is adjust our perspective. I believe that’s exactly what we are doing when we take comfort in the notion that there is always someone worse off than we are.

In addition to this perspective correction, you may find that the person or persons you are comparing yourself to are coping with their situation in an extraordinary manner. If you find this to be inspirational, that’s another sound coping mechanism.

To the extent that observing or considering less fortunate people motivates us to think more clearly and optimistically about our situation, then this coping mechanism is valid. It probably shouldn’t be your primary coping mechanism, and definitely shouldn’t be your only coping mechanism. But, if you can use the situations of others to improve your own perspective on life, without hurting anyone else’s feelings, then it’s a good thing.

I know it works for me. I’m in a pretty bad way, but as I observe other people with severe illnesses I often take solace in the fact that I enjoy many advantages over them. I know that sentence sounds awful, but it isn’t. I’m simply recalibrating my perspective so as to stop feeling sorry for myself.

Let me turn the tables a little bit. Since I’m dealing with some pretty bad health issues, presumably with some degree of fortitude, I am aware that people may look at my situation and take solace in the fact that they are not as bad off as me. How do I feel about that?

It’s complicated. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the comfort they may experience by comparing their challenges to mine, especially if it allows them to stop feeling sorry for themselves. But on the other hand, I hate to think that I am being pitied. I realize that I’m drawing a very fine line, and I’m not exactly sure how to ask anyone to navigate that line…

Taking this whole concept one step further, if I were to find out today that I was going to die tomorrow, a big part of my coping mechanism would be to look back on how fortunate my life has been compared to the lives of others. I might think, “I enjoyed a better life than 99% of the people who are now alive or who have ever lived.”

This has got me thinking. If I had 24 hours notice of my imminent demise, in addition to reflecting on a life well lived, I would also complete the following tasks, without delay:
  • clear my browser history
  • show Kim where the money is stashed and how to pay the bills
  • put up the Christmas Tree, even if it is summer
  • make an appointment at the crematorium
  • eat an entire chocolate cake and wash it down with chocolate milk (whole, not skim)
  • change my Facebook status
  • publish an offensive cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed
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  1. Knowing that you (or anyone) is doing worse than I am does not make me feel better, or more fortunate than you. I don't feel the way I feel due to any relativity to your situation. I just feel the way that I feel, that's all.

    Your "bucket list" surprised me, however. I'm astounded that Kim doesn't know where all the money is "stashed;" unless you have a super secret account in the Cayman Islands that she isn't privy to, or how to pay the bills. How tough can that be? Kim seems, on your blog, to be a smart person. How else would she be able to put up with the crap I assume you fling her way from time to time?

    Also, you don't seem like the kind of person to make disparaging jokes toward Muslims. Just sayin'.

  2. Yup. I know what you mean. Thanks for ending it with a laugh. I would eat a bag of Oreos and wash it down with a container of ice cream...thinking about what flavor...

  3. Webster,

    I understand that not everyone employees this coping mechanism. But I just wanted to make it okay for people who do think that way to not feel guilty about it.

    My bucket list was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The way Kim and I have divided our marital duties, she has only a vague idea of where the money is and how to pay bills. Granted, she’s very bright, but this has just always been my domain in our family. I have made up a cheat sheet for her in case I get struck by lightning, but if I knew I was going to be gone in 24 hours I could definitely save her some aggravation by giving her a half hour lesson. Damn, now I only have 23 and a half hours left…

    And the Muslim thing – that was definitely a play on current events. What is going on in the world with the protests, etc., is a very complex sociopolitical issue that I do have strong opinions about, but I don’t want to expound upon those opinions in this blog. My attempt at humor was to say something along the lines of, “Since I’m going to die in 24 hours anyway, I guess it would be safe for me to risk my life with the radical Muslims by making a disparaging remark about their prophet.” My limited comic skills rely heavily on irreverent humor like this.

    And yes, Kim is very adept at dodging my crap. But once in a while, not very often, I hit the mark!


    You’ve got me thinking. I would definitely need to incorporate ice cream into my last meal. Maybe in the form of a milkshake…

  4. Literally woke up at 12am and read your replies, but I "got it" on my own. Wow and OMG (that's gosh for you!) well written. Not sure whether or not I can blame MS for sluggish brain, but you've Definately got me thinking...why does it have to happen in the middle of the night?

  5. I admit, I do use that coping mechanism -- often -- even here on the blogosphere. What you said is true, though. It's sort of a "There but for the grace of God go I." (Yes, I know you're a non-believer. That was MY statement.) As far as the 24 hours to live? I'm definitely giving that one some thought. Loved your sarcastic ones!

  6. On the "people worse off than you" issue, wonder whether parents are still telling food-refusing kids about starving kids in Africa who would be thrilled to have whatever.

    On the bucket list, pretty sure you are a great big nut. Wish it was on husband and I loved the video you made of the pet peeves............Ginny

  7. And, yeah, the "Kim-not-being-privy-to-all-the-money-info" has a bit of a Ward and June Cleaver ring to in, "Don't you worry your pretty little head about it." (Help! The women readers are piling on you!)

  8. Tammy,

    I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one that wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about my blog :-)


    Sarcastic? Whatever do you mean?


    Oh Ginny, Ginny, and Ginny…where do I begin with you? I'll start with this question – would June Cleaver lay a hardwood floor, install a patio, put up ceiling fans, get up on the roof with a leaf blower and blow off all of the pine needles, mow the lawn, cut down trees, bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan? If Kim took care of the finances in addition to all these other tasks, what would be left for me to do? :-)

    As a side note, if June Cleaver did do all of the things I listed above, she would probably do it in a pretty dress and high heels. I am going to suggest that to Kim. I'll let you know how that goes for me.