When Comparison Kills Compassion

“It’s okay, Lloyd. None of our parents are perfect! I mean, my mom is weird and collects sea shells. Your dad levels cities and attacks innocent people. So, they’ve all got their quirks, you know?” – New Lego Ninjago Movie Trailer, Release date: Fall 2017.

I took my kids to the theatre recently and this hysterical quote from the new Lego Ninjago Movie trailer made me smirk. (Check out the trailer and chuckle, here!) Lloyd, the Lego ninja, is down in the dumps because his father (and the villain Lloyd finds himself battling) is pure evil. Not only does Lloyd’s father live to destroy others, but you gather from the trailer that Lloyd’s dad abandoned him early in life, put zero effort into developing a relationship with his son, and, in fact, can’t even pronounce Lloyd’s name correctly. (“L”-loyd is what his dad calls him in the trailer! Hahaha!) Anyways, in his moment of transparent Lego grief over his terrible father, Lloyd’s friends try to cheer him up by leveling the playing field. After all, they comfort, everyone’s parents have their quirks!

The audience immediately recognizes this comparison is R.I.D.I.C.U.L.O.U.S. and laughs because a weird mom’s sea shell collection is not in the same league as a father’s penchant for leveling cities! The unequal analogy is what makes us bust a gut! We recognize the comparison won’t be an effective morale booster: it’s just going to make Lloyd feel even more isolated, because not even his friends get that his family’s “weird” is not on the same level as their family’s “weird”. The friend’s comparison killed his attempt at compassion.

The sad truth is that while these humorous lines are easy to analyze in a cartoon, they’re oh so much harder to crack down on in our own lives. Too often, comparison is the poor emotional tool many of us pull from our relational “tool belts”, when confronted with a friend’s sadness in the face of deep life pains. And all of us spend time on both sides of the poor comparison equation. An honest assessment of our own comforting skills will likely reveal we’ve been guilty of wrongly equating our lesser pain to another’s greater pain. Oh, the words we wish we could take back! We’ve also likely been in Lloyd’s shoes: being the one who is listening to a friend try to encourage us that their struggle over their mom’s seashell collecting is the same as our father disowning us. Oh, the words we wish we’d never heard!

Case in point. Not too long ago, I witnessed a mother of a child with Dravet Syndrome (an extremely serious seizure disorder characterized by prolonged seizures of many types, psychomotor delay, ataxia, cognitive impairment, behavioral disorders, and motor deficits) who tried, in a moment of raw honesty, to post how she was feeling in a Facebook status. Brave soul. Her son had been battling his life-threatening disorder since infancy. He couldn’t go outside in the summer without wearing a cooling jacket. She had been up endless nights counting seizures, and rushed him to the hospital, regularly, when they couldn’t be stopped for hours, and these were only a few of the many ways she and her boy suffered. She had no husband helping her parent this precious boy, and she had been his primary caregiver for years. An exhausting role, to say the least. “Sometimes”, she admitted transparently in her status, “I feel jealous of people living a normal life. I try really hard not to be, but I still am.” A few friends replied with compassion, acknowledging this mother’s statistically rare and difficult parenting assignment. But, sadly, an overwhelming majority of responders in her thread (and there were many) chastised her for implying that she, a single mother in her twenties parenting a child with Dravet, had a life any less normal than her neighbors. “What is normal, anyways?”, they asked. Or, in the vernacular of Lloyd’s friends, “We’ve all got our quirks, you know?”

What this mom really needed, more than pep talks and people trying to elevate their pains to hers, was compassionate listeners and acknowledgement. That’s. It. In that moment, she just needed kindness. Someone to see that yes, the road she was on was hard, different, lonely. What she did NOT NEED was someone to teach her to appreciate it. She already knew parenting her special needs son was worth it. What she needed, that day, was to know she was not alone: that her friends saw her pain, understood why, and cared. 

This dear mother is not isolated in experiencing the backfiring of a plea for help and compassion. Too many feel the best way to ease another’s suffering is to compare our sufferings to another’s. To offer a “reality check” to what we may feel is a pity party.

Like lots of parents in my situation, I follow the stories of hundreds of parents of children with special needs on Instagram and Facebook and am active in dozens of health groups. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of making new connections and relationships. Many of these parents carry burdens caring for children who live through heavier, more debilitating, more heart-wrenching disorders than the one we bear with our daughter. That unequal load and the fact that our child is suffering less severely than another parent’s child doesn’t make our family’s pain less. Deep gratitude for not going through a hotter furnace does not ease nor erase the pain of any of our suffering. But, the inequality of the loads we bear does make the pain of those fighting harder battles worse. And, the unequal burdens we’re bearing makes comparison of our situations humorous and ridiculous at best. But even more likely, use of an unbalanced comparison intensifies and worsens their already vicious load. It’s like squeezing lemon juice on a gaping wound.

Jesus was in a similar predicament in the Garden of Gethsemane. Very distressed and troubled over his coming task, Jesus transparently told his three closest friends, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death”. Mark 14:33-34. He asked them remain and pray with him. Just presence and prayer. That was His simple request of His friends. You know the story. While Jesus was praying earnestly and feeling anguished enough to literally sweat blood, His friends were curled up in the garden, overwhelmed by their own smaller sorrows and fatigues.

To be fair, it had been a long day of Passover celebration for the disciples, capped off by some super hard spiritual revelations, confusing conversations, and the stress of learning personal suffering and loss were just around the corner both for them and for Jesus. (You can read about their disconcerting day beginning in John 13. Also check out John 14:1;16:6) I mean, folks, it had been a really draining and discouraging day for them. A painful day. By the time they made it to the garden in the middle of the night, these friends were overwhelmed and exhausted. That’s why we’re not entirely surprised when we read that the disciples in the Garden are not silently at Jesus’ side offering prayers for His strength or the passing of his trial, but catching some Zzz’s.  While Jesus’ friends didn’t actually compare their pain to His or offer poor spiritual instruction in the garden (Peter had already done that earlier in the day! John 13:6-10), they just failed to battle their own physical pain and confusion long enough to acknowledge Jesus’ more intense suffering in a present and meaningful way. They failed to care deeply enough about their Savior’s pain for it to cost them the discomfort of sleep lost.

Because often, friends, acknowledging another’s current pain or life circumstance as bigger than our own will cost us, at the very least, our pride. Comparison says, “Oh, I know difficult. Been there. Done that.” Prayers, tears, and presence simply say, “I care.” Too often we trade the humility of investing in a friend’s grief for the emotionally easier (for us) routes of being dismissive, having our own pains known themselves, or being instructive. Because, the truth is, it costs us to sit with a friend in their ash heap. It costs us our pride. Our presence. Our time. Our energy. Our resources. Our prayers. Our tears. Our story. Maybe, our silence.

Of course, there IS a time to speak: A time to offer spiritual instruction, verbal encouragement, or even a rebuke. There is definitely a time when it’s appropriate to share our own stories in an effort to encourage someone else. Sometimes comparisons, even in situations of suffering which are not equal and not exactly the same, can be deeply comforting. There is the general comfort of knowing that others hurt deeply too, have life struggles they’ve overcome, wrestle with similar spiritual questions, have lost much and know the hurdles involved in some of the burdens which are common to human suffering in general. It takes discernment to know when comparing pain to pain is a function of compassion and when it is a killer of it. It takes some soul searching of our own motivations for why we’re comparing.

I find as a parent (and I’ve noticed also in spiritual leaders) that being in a position where it is part of our job description to instruct, it’s harder to know when our kids (or our flock) need presence over words. We naturally want to “fix” the problem. We choose parenting and counseling over being a good friend. We imagine we’d handle their difficult circumstance better. And, way too often, we actually expect more spiritual resilience, and less emotion, out of our sinner friends than even Jesus was permitted to express in painful circumstances.

Oh how desperately we need the Lord’s help to grow into friends who know when to speak and when to remain silent.

When to take a nap, and when to pray.

When hugs, prayers, and silent tears are more healing than comparisons or lectures.

 

 

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