Her husband called gently to her from the kitchen, “Honey, it’s time for your protein shake.” She wrinkled her nose. She’d been struggling to put on weight, so she needed a boost in the form of an apparently not-so-tasty shake each night. Knowing that others struggle with precisely the opposite problem (knowing, perhaps, that I was incredibly self-conscious about being over- rather than under-weight myself), she sighed and said, “We all have our own very specific struggles.”
There is such grace in those words.
Truce. No need to try to justify one person’s struggle at the expense of another’s. My pain does not matter more than yours. Your pain does not matter more than mine. It’s not a competition. We may not all be going through the same thing, but we’re all going through something, and there’s a certain camaraderie in that. Be gentle, then, with yourself and with the people in your orbit, especially the people whose struggles you don’t understand.
When I was in high school, I tried to share something that had really hurt me with a close friend. I had never talked about it before, so as we sat in his carport I fidgeted with my shirt sleeve and stumbled around the words, sort of circling my way into opening up. I finally got to the point and told him about an experience that had been deeply painful for me, one that I was just now trying to make sense of. As I explained, he cut me off mid-sentence.
“Seriously? I don’t see how you can act like your life is so hard. Do you know what I’ve been through?”
He launched into a painful memory of his own, and kept going, assuring me that he knew plenty of people, himself included, who had more of a right to the kind of pain I’d expressed then I did. Mine was nothing compared to theirs. Theirs was real; mine was shallow. Theirs was valid; mine was stupid. With the memory of him slamming that door so harshly in my face, it took me years to bring up the subject again, thankfully next time to much more gracious and empathetic listeners. I carried such guilt about my feelings after that, believing I didn’t have any business feeling what I felt in the face of so much else going on in the world. How could I complain when people are out there right now living through wars and abuse and all kinds of bigger, badder issues? Maybe it was better to just keep my mouth shut and not belittle real pain by voicing my silly little problems. But the thing is, the fact that others are suffering, too–some suffering in ways I can’t even imagine–didn’t do a thing to take away the cold, sharp ache I was feeling. Comparing it to others didn’t lessen the load for me, and it didn’t seem to help them any either.
There is no threshold you have to meet before you’re allowed to share your heart. If it matters to you, it matters. Regardless of what anyone else is going through, you are entitled to what you feel. You don’t have to be worse off than everybody else to be honest about what’s going on with you. And what you feel is valid whether someone else would consider it an appropriate response to the situation or not.
You’re not over- or under-reacting.
You’re not just being dramatic.
You’re not cold and dead inside.
You’re just going through your own very specific struggle and reacting in your own very specific way.
Pick up the peace in that and hold onto it with both hands. Letting it just be what it is– good, bad, or ugly– that’s when I feel God’s presence most palpably, hovering in the air around me, thick with all the words I’m free to speak and own without shame or justification. We have an incredible amount of power to mediate that grace for one another (or to disrupt it for one another) by the space we create for people to lay down their socially-appropriate, holding-it-together-in-public faces and just tell it like it is. We can be a safe harbor where there’s no need to keep up appearances. We can give one another peace by just listening and acknowledging, “I hear you. I believe you. I care.” You don’t have to understand someone’s particular struggle, just that it is a struggle for them. That is enough.
We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
We look at each other, then into ourselves,
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.
-Maya Angelou, Amazing Peace