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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