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After all, isn’t it a perversion of human decency to use another person’s suffering to improve our own outlook? Shouldn’t the acknowledgment that others are suffering make us feel worse, not better? Does it demonstrate a lack of compassion that we psychologically benefit from recognizing the distress of others?
No, no, and no.
The use of this coping mechanism does not indicate a lack of compassion or empathy. Quite the opposite. Empathy is almost certainly extended to the person or persons being held up for comparison. This isn’t about cruelty. This is about recalibrating one's perspective.
To the extent that 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 or in dire circumstances, I often take solace in the fact that I enjoy many advantages over them. I know that 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 nasty 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?
Go for it. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone the comfort they may experience by comparing their challenges to mine.
Taking this 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 say, “I enjoyed a better life than 99% of the people who ever lived before me.”
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.
- make an appointment at the crematorium.
- write a short "afterward" to my finished but yet unpublished memoir and then upload the book to Amazon, so that I could die a published author.
- eat an entire chocolate cake and wash it down with chocolate milk (whole, not skim).
- change my Facebook status, to make it official.