I see out my window the faint beginnings of sunrise, just the slightest tinge of pink to the wispy clouds, a sunrise that is sure to be beautiful because of all the smoke in the air. It is hard to fathom the destruction on the other end of that beautiful sunset, the lives lost and homes burned to the ground and communities destroyed in a fiery inferno. There is that moment in every conversation about the smoke, where it shifts from commiserating about the air quality and the ash you can actually see in the air and having to run on a treadmill to a hushed guilt about complaining when there are people losing their homes and their lives.
I don’t remember the source at the moment (I wish I could), but at some point in either my meditation practice or from my therapist or in a self-development book, the idea of this guilt was discussed. The “it could be worse” guilt.
It feels a very Midwestern idea. Leave it to a bunch of stoic Lutherans to create guilt out of a very normal and natural—yes, even healthy—thing to do. It’s the logic that gives us the common threat to finish dinner: “Eat your broccoli, there are kids starving in Africa.” Somehow equating my food waste with the socio-economic and political machines that create and sustain poverty. Okay, cool, I’ll just pack up this broccoli and ship it to those kids.
But I know it’s universal. This guilt disguises itself as sympathy and usually comes packaged in “but at leasts” or “but what about.” This guilt always draws false equivalencies under the guise of not wanting to seem like a horrible person, complaining while others have it “so much worse.”
The air quality is so bad, but what about the fire victims, can you imagine losing everything?
I had to run on the treadmill for the fourth day in a row, it’s so boring and I hate it, but at least I have a house.
I wake up every morning with a scratchy throat and I’ve been getting headaches, could that be related to the smoke? But I shouldn’t complain, at least I’m safe and not in the path of the fires.
While we’re creating these statements in order not to feel like a horrible person, ironically it is the statements themselves that imply that we are horrible people by creating illogical comparisons. These black-and-white statements make it seem like we can’t hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time: we can’t be both frustrated at the air quality and be sympathetic to the plight of those actually dealing with much worse. I don’t know that anyone here dealing with the smoke actually thinks they are in as bad of shape as someone who lost their home. I never would have thought that you thought asthma flare-up due to the smoke was comparable to losing a house except now you just put them in the same sentence together so maybe you are comparing them and so yeah you’d better let me know that you’re not a horrible person for thinking that. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt that when we feel whatever it is we’re feeling about something we’ve encountered in our daily lives, we aren’t trying to say our hardship is greater than or equal to the hardships others are facing. I mean, no matter what in my life angers or irritates me, I could always find something worse. That doesn’t negate my own experience.
By silencing our own feelings about our lives, we do a disservice to our own mental health. It’s dangerous, not to mention exhausting, to always compare our feelings and our problems with those of others. To convince ourselves we don’t “deserve” to feel a certain way. And yet, somehow we feel the need to make sure it’s clear that I have the self-awareness to know that my problem is not really a problem in the grand scheme of things. It’s the #firstworldproblems mindset: it’s one thing to add levity to a situation as a way of putting something into perspective (the fact that the coffee shop ran out of whatever type of milk it is that you usually prefer is irritating but not really life-altering); it’s quite another to add guilt over feeling the irritation. If someone said to you, “My car wouldn’t start this morning, so I was late for work and missed an important meeting and I’m really frustrated especially because I just had the car serviced,” wouldn’t you take that at face value, realize they had a rough morning, and not read anything more into it? If someone said to you, “My car wouldn’t start this morning, so I was late for work and missed an important meeting and I’m really frustrated especially because I just had the car serviced, but at least I have a job in this economy,” now suddenly this person’s anger is tinged with guilt. That statement doesn’t really make them sound grateful, does it?
Finding the bright side, finding levity, putting things into perspective—these are all important tools to not let the anger and irritation fester and get out of control. But they aren’t tools to cover up the anger totally. They aren’t tools of guilt. When we start using them as tools to hide the anger, we don’t process and deal with the anger, and then we end up flying off the handle disproportional to the trigger. That’s when not having the right type of milk becomes a cataclysmic event rather than a minor annoyance. And I’m all for gratitude, the “at least I…” statement. But gratitude doesn’t have to be a cover-up for anger—that basically defeats the purpose of being grateful because it qualifies it and ties it to guilt.
So go ahead, be irritated at your damn latte, give it the appropriate amount of energy before moving on. If you’re still talking about it three days later, take that as a sign you’re bottling up emotions rather than feeling them. Feel irritation at your latte and true sadness for the victims of the fires. It’s possible to do both. It’s healthy to do both.
How to help, if you’re so inclined: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/11/us/california-fires-how-to-help.html