Covid-19: Comparative Suffering, Or Would it be, Competitive Suffering?

I think we’ve already established that our son acutely comprehends that having his Sydney study abroad canceled is indeed a “first world problem.” Further, I thought we’ve made it painfully clear that we recognize that much worse things can happen to a person than having their senior year of high school abruptly come to an end. Yes. We know that our sons’ losses are a privileged disappointment. Nevertheless, I am curious, if you do not want to hear our truth, why do you keep asking us? Is it a set up? A test? Are you trying to gauge our narcissism?

Here is the truth: They are sad. They are disappointed. They are lonely. They miss their friends. They are depressed. They sleep a lot. They struggle to get their homework done. Most days our older son says he is at a 3 – 4.5 out of a 1-10 happiness scale. Today he is a 6.5 — a gift. Our younger son told me earlier,

“Mom, if I cannot go back to school and finish my senior year, I am afraid I will always struggle with completion issues.”

Consequently, your “instructional” question actually feels like a trap, especially when you respond with a smirk and proclaim,

“well, you know, first world problems,” [insert your eye-roll here] and then follow with, “people are losing their homes, their jobs and their lives.” 

Here is the deal: I think you are missing the point. If we cannot feel and process our own pain, how can we relate to someone else’s? And if we are not allowed to process pain, then how will we be able to understand and comprehend other people’s suffering?

Ok. Let me back up. Somewhere in this socially distant world we now live in, also lives my dad. He will be eighty in September. Because he convinced himself that he is not my biological father (and told me so), he bailed on me many years ago. (It is true. He did tell me I am not his. Unfortunately for both of us, I am.) As a result of our is-she-or-isn’t-she-your-child conundrum, I have never ever had much of a relationship with him. It has been so long since I have seen him that I probably could not pick him out in a crowd or a Zoom chat screen. Regardless of our dysfunction, there was this time he reached out to me specifically. I was fifteen years old. He asked me if he could take me to lunch. He picked me up. Then we drove to a restaurant in Minnetonka, Minnesota called the Good Earth. (It is now a Champ’s Sports Bar). As we sat there, uncomfortably eating, he said that he wanted to have this lunch with me because he needed to tell me some things that he was not sure anyone else would tell me:

(1.) He told me about sex. Yes. He gave me the big sex talk, which my mom, the school, and this one girl on the school activity bus had already given me. I know you know how the sex talk goes so I will move on to his second topic. Wait! Before I do, don’t you think it is odd that my stranger-dad thought it was his job to explain intercourse? Anyway, moving on.

(2.) My Bio-dad said the following (or at least, this is what I heard.):

“Pain is pain. I hate it when people talk about starving kids in Africa and how you should know exactly how they are feeling and that you are somehow a bad person if you complain that you are hungry.” Then he paused, cleared his throat and continued, “You should not feel bad. You don’t know how they feel. You don’t know what it is like to be a starving kid in Africa. You do not know what it is like to live their life. The best you can do is to feel badly for them and to try and be a better person.” He paused one more time and then sternly admonished, “Beth, your pain is just as important. It is not less. And because you say out loud that you are sad, or that you are hungry, does not imply that you think you are better than anyone else. It is your story. Your framework. Your world. It is ok to feel sad when you are sad. It is ok to feel that pain. No one should tell you how to feel, or tell you you are less than. No one.”

I am grateful he felt compelled to share that with me. If I asked him now, which would mean I would have to find him, I am not sure he would remember his words or why he needed to share them with me. But I remember. My dad’s advice was brilliant. I am grateful. I always have been. 

Marianne & I

And here is where the story comes together: my best friend Marianne is a single mom with three kids at home. She makes her living as a hairstylist and does not receive child support. Due to the rules of essential businesses and social isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, overnight she lost her livelihood. She has not been able to work. She is definitely not experiencing first world or privileged issues. I have cried for her. I have listened as she has shared her frustrations and fears. I have spoken about her before. In the next month or two, she could get evicted. She and her children could become homeless. She could be completely devastated. She is suffering more than I can imagine. 

The other morning I was super depressed. I turned my phone off. I slept really late. I did not want to get out of bed. I saw my phone light up. I saw that it was Marianne. She was trying to FaceTime. I hit the “decline” button and rolled over. Eventually I got out of bed, teary-eyed. I took extra long brushing my teeth, cleaning my retainers, and washing my hands. I went into the kitchen to start breakfast. I decided I should call her back so I FaceTimed her. She answered on the first ring. I could see that she was sitting outside. 

“Hello Chica.” I said.

With that, Marianne burst into tears. As she held a tissue to her face, she sobbed. I assumed she was stressing about money. I started to ask her about her job. I wanted to ask her about her rent, or if she had enough to eat.

Marianne & I

Instead, I decided to pause and just ask her why she was so sad.

Here is what she told me:

“I just took my five year old to a birthday party. Because of the quarantine, we had to do a drive-by parade and just wave to the girl in his class. I put some streamers on the car to make it more festive. As we drove away, he burst into tears. He is so sad about not being able to see his friends. He is so sad he is not in school. He asked me if we will ever be ok. He asked me if I was going to die. I feel so sad that he could not have a normal birthday party.”

Then I wondered. If you did not know her and only heard Marianne’s story about the birthday party, would we say, 

“Oh, first world problems. Get over it.” 

Marianne giving Eli the birthday cake she made for his 4th birthday

Or would we see that these pain-filled moments are actually what are bringing us together. They are relatable moments. See, here is a person whose whole world is falling apart. What really made her sad was how sad her son was that it was not a traditional birthday party. Obviously Marianne does not know when the rules of self isolation will end. She doesn’t know what will happen to her career or livelihood. But today, she can do something to cheer up her son or to let him know things will be OK. And in this disruptive mess of a world, these are also the moments we may be able to address or even control. Instead of deciding whose pain is valid, how about we use these hard moments to connect? How about we recognize that we are intelligent beings. It is obvious to me that my friend who just had chemotherapy is most likely suffering more than I am. It doesn’t mean I am less-than for feeling sad and not wanting to get out of bed. It does not mean my boys are selfish because they are let down.


Ultimately, I believe we can hold space for all of it.