Two friends go to gymnastics class. Kayla slips and breaks her wrist on the vault. Gemma falls off the bars but walks away with a minor scrape on her leg. We can assume Kayla has a more traumatic experience and is in more pain. Over time they continue to practice until a year later the reverse happens: Kayla scrapes her leg and Gemma breaks her wrist. Their reactions differ greatly. Kayla, having broken her wrist before and experiencing that trauma, merely brushes off the scrape and does not think twice about it. After all, she has been through much worse in the past, right? For Gemma, however, who had only experienced a scrape before, the breaking of the wrist is quite traumatic. It is much more painful than the scrape, and she suffers greatly.
Izzy Justice’s “Theory of Emotional Relativity”, from which this example was adapted, argues that those of us that have had more challenging experiences in life are better prepared than those who have had less challenging experiences simply because our scale for measuring the gravity of these experiences is so different. I wholeheartedly agree, in part because this explanation works in my favor. I am obviously more adept at handling life’s challenges than most people I know, given the nearly thirty years of navigating my mother’s life with MS. Aren’t I?
How do you measure emotional control? And does it even matter?
For years, it mattered to me. Comparing my “situation” with that of others brought me immense—albeit dark and unhealthy— satisfaction. How many people I knew stood where I had, and turned out successful? In academics, in love, in fitness and career? How many people could say they clung along the twisty directionless road of a parent with a chronic-progressive disease—since age eleven!—and came out on top?
This callousness of thought served to compartmentalize my emotions. Power trumped sadness; victory trumped fear. Thinking in relative terms produced great power—rather than empathize with others, or care about their situation, I could revel in the irrefutable knowledge that my mother’s situation is far worse than yours and look how well I’ve fared. I had fewer prouder moments than thinking about how much shit life had given my mother and our family, and how greatly we had prospered in spite of it all.
An example: Bethany’s grandmother was just diagnosed with cancer. They caught it early and the doctors believe they can save her. She will undergo treatment beginning next week. Bethany is beside herself—sobbing on my arm, wailing about the possibility of not having her grandmother alive to meet her unborn child. Why her? Why them?
I pat Bethany’s shoulder. There, there. Those doctors are going to blast that cancer to the moon. And five months from now, she’ll be waiting to meet that baby with open arms. Your grandmother is fierce! She will survive this.
Despite my outward displays of empathy, my mind is reeling. Shut up, Bethany. Just shut up! You are thirty-three years old and this is the first real hardship you have faced in your life. Your parents are married and healthy and still live in the home you grew up in. Your siblings are doing well for themselves. You have three grandparents still alive—three!—whereas all of mine died the year I turned twenty-one. Your grandparents aren’t going to live forever. They’re in their eighties. Are you seriously this upset?
Facebook exacerbates the issue. Anytime someone posts a perceived health hardship I don’t deem “a big deal”, I feel an ego boost. They think that’s difficult? Ha! Try lifting your mother up from the bathroom floor she’s fallen on! Try changing an adult diaper on someone who can’t move! Try getting them into the car to go to the doctor when you don’t have a handicap-accessible van! I’m laughing all the way; I am strong, successful, unafraid. I was dealt shit, and I handled it.
After my mother's death an uneasiness began to creep in. How well had I really handled all of this? I am financially secure, yes. I am in good shape—most people think I’m ten years younger than my actual age. I have traveled the world, attracted beautiful men, walked along some of the most remote beaches on the planet, written articles and published my first book. I have also job hopped, lived precariously, taken multiple leaves of absence and found myself married and divorced by age thirty-one.
Perhaps the bigger question is not how well I handled things but why I cared so much about "handling it" better than everyone else. There are instances in which others have it worse. Much, much worse. One paralyzed parent and the other an alcoholic; a mother with Huntington's and a severely autistic daughter; a son who lost both parents and his child to a drunk driver. There are instances in which others have it better. Everything is relative in life and love, heartache and pain, and how we cope with that is up to us.
I had to choose to be better, to make a conscious effort to reject those creeping thoughts, to stop looking for validation in the pain and misery of others. I had to will myself to practice gratitude, to stop carrying grudges against people with families in good health and good standing, to shift focus instead to acts of kindness like handwritten notes or sending a framed photo of a beloved dog who had passed away. By acknowledging the ups and downs in the lives of others, especially those closest to me, I found myself moving toward peace and acceptance.
While rage and resentment still live inside of me I've found more constructive ways to temper those feelings when they arise. Like Kayla on the vault, I am brushing off my scrapes and bruises and moving forward. Courageously. Undoubtedly. Forward.