Tag Archives: compassion

Looking hard at compassion

‘Compassion’ is one of those words easily chucked about that does a good line in making you sound spiritual and enlightened. I think it’s always worth poking anything that can be wafted about easily to make sure we’re doing what we think we’re doing.

Is the compassion something that lives in our heads, or is it translating into action? We can feel compassion for the hungry, the homeless, etc, but if it’s just about our feels, it does nothing to alleviate suffering. Telling ourselves we are feeling compassion may be a way of letting ourselves off the hook, assuaging guilt without actually doing anything useful.

The ‘I’m feeling so compassionate towards you right now’ stance can also be a way of disempowering the other. Here I am, all big, spiritual, shiny and wise feeling compassion for you because clearly you need it. Smug compassion can be more about making ourselves feel bigger than the one who needs our compassion. If it takes that shape, it does no good at all. Compassion can be a re-framing of pity, and pity only drags people down, it never lifts them.

‘I’m being compassionate towards myself’ can be a fantastically effective way of re-branding selfishness. It can be used to justify self interest and to protect us from having to look at the things which might otherwise make us feel uncomfortable. Ironically the people who most need to practice self care are the ones most likely to be hauling themselves over the coals, and the ones who can easily announce their compassion for themselves are, from what I’ve seen, the ones who have least need for it. And if you’re the kind of overthinker who perpetually tries to second guess their own motives, sorry about this paragraph. There’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves, unless we do that as a way of not being responsible or honourable.

I admit that if I encounter someone who talks a lot about how compassionate they are, I become rapidly sceptical. I’m interested in people talking about how to practice compassion effectively, how to do it more and better, but that’s got a very different swing to it. I’m also much more interested in people talking about what they do that helps, in whatever way, at whatever level. How do we make things better? How can we be kinder to each other and take better care of each other? Not by poncing about announcing how very, very compassionate we are, that’s for sure.

(And yes, if I was a better sort of person I might know how to feel compassion for the people who have to wave the idea of their own compassion about in this attention seeking way, but I don’t. )


Depressed elephant is in the room

Let’s imagine that whenever people got violently mugged, our culture would blithely comment on the bruises and sudden shortage of money as though the victim was largely to blame, and with no reference at all to the mugger. That would seem ludicrous, yet when it comes to mental health, something all too similar is happening.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer published a report which explicitly linked rising mental health problems with work stress. This may be news to you. The papers picked up on some obesity issues in the report and entirely ignored the mental health bit. I only know because I hunted down and read some of the original documents. some mental health problems are entirely chemical. Many are brought about by life experience.

Work stress makes people sick. This is not difficult to ascertain. I watch so many friends being asked to work longer hours and take extra responsibility with no additional money in the mix. With jobs still scarce, no one in a job will risk protest if the demands are too great. Sure, you’ll stay on late tonight, and tomorrow. Sure, you’ll do the job of the full time person who left and isn’t being replaced, and you’ll do it alongside everything you were already doing, because if you don’t, you might not have a job. With the way those on benefits are stigmatised, punished, and pushed deeper into crisis, who wouldn’t be terrified of going there? And if you can entirely hold your mental health together in face of the threats, pressures, humiliations and deprivations of falling into debt, unemployment or both, you’ll be an unusual creature indeed.

There are many implications to rising ill health in your populous. It’s not a viable way to run a country. Depressed people are not resplendent with energy, enthusiasm or innovation. Anxious people often end up with distorted thinking around risk. Having poor mental health does not, in my experience, contribute to making the best choices. Everything gets progressively harder.

Even if you can’t muster the compassion to care for the vast amount of human suffering this causes, there are profit implications. Exhausted people don’t concentrate as well. They make mistakes and cannot work quickly. The more you pile onto a person, the less able they become to do it. We all have limits and we will all break sooner or later. Break a person badly enough and they don’t fix. They become too ill to work – which has a financial cost to consider if you can’t muster any sympathy.

All you can get out of our current approach, is to squeeze some short term profits out of people. Long term, the cost will be high, in terms of broken health and shattered lives, a workforce too ill to work is not going to turn anyone a profit. Push people far enough and they can crack up entirely, which can result in death – suicide, murder or both. It’s not a way to run a country.

The depressed elephant is well and truly in the room. It is large, heavy and crushing people. We have a sick work culture, and we need to be talking more about the brutal amounts of pressure some people, many people, are enduring.  If you’re being routinely mugged by a workplace, know that the bruises (which may be psychological) and the shortage of cash is there for a reason, and that reason is not you.


Diseased Druid

Yesterday I was too ill to make it to the desktop computer, so there was no blog. One of the plusses of being self-employed is that this very seldom happens. When I’m merely a bit ill, I can keep working. That I need to is part of the downside of being self employed – if I don’t work, there is no sick cover. I’m paid for what I do, more often than not, but if I get ill and can’t work for a long period, this is unnerving. Usually I’m not so ill that I can’t push through it.

‘Can’t’ is an interesting word though, and one we all bring into play at different times. I tend to be fairly literal about it – ‘can’t work’ tends to mean fever, inability to actually sit in an upright position, so sleep deprived that I can’t concentrate and the like. I also know from experience that if I have to, even that level of  ‘can’t’ can be pushed. I’ve done school runs on foot, feverish with tonsillitis because there wasn’t any other option that day.

‘Can’t’ is more of an option when you have a safety net. If someone else can catch the critical things that are challenging, it is easier to lie down and quit for a bit. The winter before last, when I had pneumonia, Tom did all the shopping. Long cycle rides in the rain to fetch groceries. A task that normally required us both, he took the extra load, quite literally. But then, there are some illnesses (and pneumonia is one of them) where stoically battling on can kill you.

I marvel at the array of different human responses to discomfort and disease. The people for whom a bruise or a cut is worthy of comment, through to the other extremes of people who push through chronic and even terminal illness because there are things they want to achieve. The worst thing we’ve endured is the measure of what we know we can take, so those who are relatively pain free and healthy tend, in my experience, to make a lot more fuss about minor setbacks than people for whom those small things might be less of an issue than what constitutes business as usual.

Our baseline for compassion also has a lot to do with experience. It’s easier to empathise with someone if you have some faint clue as to what their experiences may feel like. Those who have lived well and pain free, for whom a scrape and a bump is the worst of it, sometimes find it very hard to make sense of the people for whom pain is a constant. And so you can get into situations where the relatively unscathed demand a lot of attention for minor ills but do not take seriously the ongoing suffering of others.

One of the things I notice about people I know who live with pain, restricted mobility and serious ongoing health challenges, is they often learn not to make much fuss. Partly, I suspect, because the baseline for normal shifts over time and with it shifts the point at which it feels worth saying something. There is the fear of being seen as a nuisance, by those who are not suffering and who will be bored or offended by the details. There is pride, and the determination to be independent, as far as possible.

What a person says about their struggles, illness and difficulty, of any variety, is not any kind of absolute measure of what they are up against. We’re very quick to judge each other, especially if there are questions of our time and energy being required to cover for someone else’s illness. It is inconvenient. They may be making a fuss about nothing. They may also be making far too little fuss about a great deal and it’s worth remembering (having seen a few very close calls with other people) that this degree of stoicism can prove fatal.


Hope, not hate

If you’ve been following UK politics in the news, you’ll have been hearing far too much about the ‘success’ of the far right party, UKIP, and very little about how well the Greens have been doing. The media bias makes me very uncomfortable, but that’s an issue for another day. Perhaps in part due to the media hype, a lot of people did vote for UKIP; whose policies include getting rid of maternity pay, making rape in marriage legal, and blaming anyone ‘not from round here’ for just about everything. No doubt some of those votes were in protest against the mainstream, not meant as endorsements.

However, I’ve seen UKIP supporters online. Angry, anti-intellectual, resentful, frustrated, shouty… they do not inspire joy. This is not a party which brings out the best in people, but a party that calls the police to challenge someone who had posted actual UKIP policy statements to twitter. What do we do in face of this?

The temptation is to get angry back. It’s very easy to shout abuse at angry, destructive people who put their fingers in their ears and sing loudly if there’s any risk someone might show them evidence that doesn’t back their claims. I’ve hardly been complimentary in the last few paragraphs, but I’m also terribly aware that these are people. Somewhere in there, they have feelings, and there’s a good chance that for many, beneath the veneer of noisy anger is a deep seam of terror. Life is scary just now. Climate change is terrifying. How much easier it is to be able to blame all the big economic problems on powerless immigrants! It would be even more alarming if we had to look at how those with power are screwing us over. And all the while, those with power are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee as those of us who should have been working together for change are mired in fighting each other.

Getting angry does not cause angry people to magically become compassionate. It doesn’t get rid of hate, but entrenches it. Shouting at people and calling them bloody stupid, does not get many of them to engage productively. I suspect people are going to UKIP under the mistaken impression that this party cares, and is listening. These are people who have every reason to feel that the mainstream doesn’t care and isn’t listening. That needs to change.

In the normal scheme of things we hate people who have personally wronged us, and where we can see a direct causal link between them and the specific wrong. What we’re getting is a truly irrational mass hatred of whole groups of people. That’s not hard wired into any of us but is being constructed, and fed. It would be all too easy to make UKIPpers another hate group for smug people to look down on. Another vast generalisation and condemnation to feed the division and keep us all harassing each other.

Hug a UKIPper. They probably need it. We need hope, not hate. We need to co-operate, not tear each other down. We need to recognise and respect each other’s fundamental humanity – it’s fine not to like each other and not to agree, but that doesn’t entitle us to strip others of rights and dignity. There are some large and real problems out there just now – wealth distribution, climate change, human rights, our viability and future as a species… the more people there are working together to tackle that, the better. Hope not hate means having to work out how not to hate the haters – and that’s going to be really hard. We will not build a better world by chucking shit at each other, we have to inspire each other to do better. There is no other way.

(and, while the media silence is curious, the Greens actually did very well in the local elections).


Communities of care

Life is sometimes very hard indeed. The balance varies for each of us to outlandish degrees. While access to money can ease the other crap into being more bearable, even wealth can be stripped away by misfortune. Nothing is certain. This is why community is so important. It is in connecting with each other, to share the good and the bad alike, that we make life bearable. This can mean exposing ourselves to more pain as we open our hearts to the suffering of others, but it is utterly worth it.

In sharing, we learn, which can make us better prepared for our own setbacks. In sharing, we develop resilience and resources to tackle problems. We develop banks of knowledge and insight so we’re not individually re-inventing the wheel as the same old problems come round again. Very little is new. Death and sorrow, poverty and exploitation, tyrants in power and the commons in peril – I could sing you songs from a hundred years ago that tell all the same stories.

There is an approach that resents and resists other people speaking from this distress. There are many ways to silence discomfort. Ridicule, suggesting it is ‘over the top’ making comparisons to those who are, by some undisclosed measure ‘much worse off’ we can make people in pain shut up. This means we do not have to feel any responsibility for helping them. The consequence of this is to increase social isolation and to increase misery by a number of means. Today I was told that by expressing when I am unhappy and getting support, I have got into a self-perpetuating cycle that encourages me to stay in a place of pain rather than deal with it. Nice one! By this means am I to be shamed into silence, and into isolation, whilst being told I am being helped. It is bullshit, and needs labelling as such. How do we handle, as communities, the people who undermine community? One for another day perhaps.

When we work as communities to support each other, what happens is that everyone who today takes a supporting role, gets to feel useful and valuable. You are holding someone up, this is massively useful and valuable. It also demonstrates your membership of the community, expressing and reinforcing bonds of connection. You know, that when you get into trouble, the same thing will happen – people will rally round with kind words at the very least. There may be useful advice, wisdom, practical help, insight, opportunities – all of which could not have flowed to you if you had not expressed distress and need in the first place.

We all have off-days and periods of crisis. It is part of being alive and being human. If I sit here telling you about how great my life is, because I’m published/married/a Druid/have good karma/think positive thoughts and I create an illusion of joyful perfection, that could easily make it seem that there is a reason why my life is damn near perfect, and your isn’t, and the reason is you. That’s also bullshit, and damaging. If I own my crap, and own that crap happens randomly to us all, you know that I am not somehow magically better than you, and there is no innate failure in you that explains why things do not go so well sometimes. When you own your crap in turn, I am reminded that there’s nothing uniquely wrong with me, I am about as flawed and confused as the next person, and that’s ok. We’re allowed. I’m not faultlessly compassionate or infallibly wise. I make bad calls. We all do.

We are all, also now and then graced with moments of shining awesomeness. If you’re in an alienated culture where you can’t mention the shit, but you dare to mention the glorious success, the odds are some irate bastard will knock you down for that, too. In a culture where knocking people down is normal, anything that isn’t beige and forgettable makes you a target. Just look at how we treat our celebrities! In a real community, there is room for the sorrows and the celebrations, for the triumphs and disasters, for the bad days and the good ones, in whatever mix we get them. There is room to delight in each other, be proud of each other, support, enable, nurture and help each other through good times and bad times alike.

If you’re sharing a word, a thought, a moment, you are part of that community for me and I really appreciate it.


Putting down the baggage

Baggage is heavy, it slows you down and is easily tripped over. I’m finding at the moment that an array of baggage I’d not noticed I was hauling, is making life hard. The baggage announces that things are bound to go wrong because I’m not good enough and will be judged accordingly. It borrows the voices of everyone who has ever ridiculed and denigrated me, to tell me that failure is inevitable. Important things will go wrong, and they will go wrong because I am inadequate, and letting the side down. But then, no matter how well I’ve done and no matter how difficult the circumstances, there have always been people keen to point out how I should have done it so much better, faster, etc. My mistake was to listen to them.

The baggage I carry most readily is caused by feeling that I’ve failed. The mistakes I have made, my weaknesses, shortcomings and insufficiencies are what haunt me. I can often let go of unkindness that has come to me from other people. I can quite often forgive and forget, or find excuses and justifications for them, that lets them off the hook. I let the people who wound me get away with it, and shoulder a bag full of it-was-all-my-fault, and heft it about. Sometimes the weight of these squashes me and I struggle to move.

It’s taken me a long time to learn how to be wary. I’ve accepted people who have asked me to shoulder the blame. I’ve been reduced to weeping, panicking distress and let myself be persuaded it is my fault for being weak, emotional, demanding… Those are difficult bags to put down. They grow into you after a while. They have become me such that putting them down feels a lot like tearing my own skin off.

I’ve found the best solution is to pick things over and look for other possible explanations. I know I get things wrong sometimes – we all do. It is important to me to understand those mistakes so that I can learn and improve. Mistakes are key to learning. Someone who cares about me will help me make sense of things when there’s a problem. It’s a very basic manifestation of care, that. I do not want to avoid the baggage by deciding that I am always good and right, because that would prevent me from seeing my mistakes, and turn me into someone who requires everyone else to shoulder the blame. That would not be ok.

So I pick things apart, and I look for the exact points at which my judgement was wonky, or I was working from insufficient data, and I try to make sense of them and see what can be learned. So long as I’m not dealing with people who require me to be innately wrong so that they get to always be perfect, the unpicking works. I can make sense of things, resolve things, do better next time. Sometimes I act in haste or in anger. Sometimes I am not as compassionate as I would like to be. Only in owning and holding that can I move forward and change it. Owning it hurts, always. Failure to own it causes a lot more damage. I have learned that I can own and hold a shortcoming, work through to understanding it and then stop beating myself about the head with it. I do not have to drag every failure behind me as I go. I just have to learn and do better next time.


To be a better Druid

We all develop in different ways and our paths take us each in different directions. No two of us will have quite the same definition of what it means to grow, improve, or whether ‘better’ is even a relevant word to apply. Nothing in nature stays still unless it is dead, and even the dead change. Growth, change, and movement are inevitable then, and choosing the ways in which we do this can be an important part of how we approach our Druidry.

At the moment I find understanding is critical for me in a lot of ways. I need to understand my own journey, and to see how experience has shaped me. There are aspects of self and behaviour that are not what I want, but to change them smoothly rather than hacking at them, I need to make sense of how they formed in the first place.

Understanding other people is of great importance to me, too. When things go wrong, I find I need to know why. I need to understand what created that situation. If I’ve messed up, I need to know so that I can fix it. If someone has messed me about because they were acting out of their own history, fear, pain or similar I want to understand that. I have a better chance at responding with compassion if I know what lies beneath anger, or negativity. I also have a better chance of responding usefully. Some people can only usefully be walked away from, but if I can say with confidence ‘that happened because…’ I don’t have to carry much away with me as I go.

Wider things in life come to be, as a consequence of all kinds of tiny connections, threads, histories and intentions. The more I can see of that, the more able I am to work with the possibilities rather than getting at cross-purposes with others.

I think about everything, a lot. When it comes to the issue of understanding, what I have to do a lot is guess. Analysing someone else’s words or actions is not unlike analysing a poem. You can come out at the end with a really impressive theory but it might be miles away from the poet’s take on things. Speculating about whys and wherefores is an inexact science and I’ve seen people get into trouble because they believed they were better at that than was the case. And of course people change, and they can wait until you thought you had it all figured, and come up with something you did not anticipate. Like the poem, the poet/person might tell you what they thought it meant and that be so far from how you experience it as to be irrelevant.

Relationships with hills and horizons tend to be a lot easier than relating to people. It is enough just to be there. But, people are a big part of my life, and trying to make sense of what happens and why remains key to getting the Druid stuff done, for me.


Acceptance and letting go

One of the easiest ways to be hurt, is to have expectations of ourselves, or others, that are not met. When we meet the ‘perfect’ lover, and want them to carry on being perfect in every way, we are setting ourselves up to suffer. When we cannot accept feet of clay in our teachers, human fragility in our friends, the shortcomings of our parents and the mistakes of our children, we create a world of pain for ourselves.

I think we all have to go through the tricky transition from parents as the godlike figures of our infancy, to parents who have power over us and can reward or punish, to parents who we start to see as capable of error. The recognition that our parents are not all-knowing can be liberating, but also alarming. For me, it brought realisation (and relief) that I would not be expected to achieve the divine levels of insight I had formerly been attributing to all adults.

I have certainly turned out to be a failure and disappointment for others along the way. The feeling of never being good enough has haunted my life, and I’ve never been sure whether that was a fair reflection of problematic shortcomings, or that the people around me were maybe judging me harshly. I’m working on just plain accepting that this is what I get sometimes, not beating myself up if I know I’ve done all I could, and not blaming them or getting angry with them for wanting me to be more than I am. We’re all flawed and we’re all in this together.

Acceptance of others and compassion for them is a theme you will find running through all kinds of spiritual writing. However, for the abused child, the beaten spouse, the bullied employee, this is not a good line to take. If acceptance holds you in a dangerous, destructive place, then it isn’t helping. It’s worth taking a step back here. To accept the way someone is, does not mean glossing over it. Acceptance is not saying ‘oh, this is all fine and fair’. Acceptance begins with honesty. Much of the time that means being able to say ‘yes, my friend hurt me with this one, but there was no intent to harm, it was an honest mistake and we can let that go and move on.’

If someone is brutalising your body, heart or mind, then the truth of that needs to be owned. Accept that there is cruelty, malice, or a level of incompetence that is dangerous to be around. Accept that they are unreliable, or outrageously selfish, incapable of empathy, careless, or whatever the issue is. Know it and name it. Then step back from it to an appropriate degree, whether that means offering less, or taking whatever you can carry and getting out the door. If you’ve accepted that someone is toxic to you, don’t stay around to be subject to further bouts of poisoning. You can accept them from a distance. You can feel compassion for them, from a distance.

I’ve met people along the way who have made clear they expected me to be perfectly compassionate and supportive of them, but who could not be asked to ‘walk on eggshells’ for me. It’s curious how eggshells always come up. I’ve stuck around for some of it, too, years in more than one instance. How it works in practice is that the other person gets to open their mouth and let all the anger, frustration, resentment, jealousy and so forth of the moment, spew forth at me. This, I had to take with saintly composure, because not to is ‘unfair’ to them. It is hurtful, attacking, I am not compassionate enough. If they wound me in such an outburst, they may say afterwards that they didn’t mean it, and I am supposed to accept that and be fine. It is unfair of me to want kindness from them, they have to be spontaneous, free to express themselves. But god help me if I take their words with a pinch of salt on one of those rare occasions when they meant what they said.

What I have come to accept is that this is bloody awful to be around. I can never be ‘saintly’ enough to pacify such people. I never give enough and never do a good enough job of accepting their… whatever that is… to make them happy. My discomfort is not to be spoken of. I accept, therefore, that in such situations all I can do is absent myself.

There was a time when I felt that ‘failing’ in me, keenly. I believed that I really should be able to do more, give more, tolerate more. Unwillingness to accept my own flaws (perceived or real) kept me in contact with people who regularly shredded me.

I’m not a saint, nor am I capable of infinite compassion. I recognise that I’ve read a lot about how I should be more compassionate, but find I need to accept my own limits. One of them is that I am no longer prepared to martyr myself to what I increasingly see as other people’s selfishness, and toddler tantrums. Come out a little way to meet me, and I will give you my all. Expect me to bleed myself dry for you, while you speak of eggshells, and I’ll be some other place.


For better or worse

Every day brings uncountable numbers of choices and opportunities, many of which we don’t even notice. It’s so easy to do things out of habit without considering the implications. I tend to wander round urban spaces in a slightly oblivious trance, especially days when I’m in a lot of pain. I don’t pay as much attention to other people as I might. That might come over as me being rude, proud, aloof or uncaring. Even without particularly doing something, I may have done something that has significant impact on another person. While its offputtingly easy to get bogged down in all of this, making a mire of inactivity out of fearing the consequences, I still think it’s worth stepping back and having a ponder now and then.

I’m actually a big believer in habits, when properly arranged. It is easier to maintain that which has become normal to us. The trick is to pick and craft the habits rather than absorbing them from external influences and pressures, or cobbling them together by accident. I try to make a habit of smiling at strangers, to break the ‘far away’ habit described above. Recently I’ve also been trying to get the boy into the habit of noticing what’s around him – with massive success, I might add. It’s nigh on impossible to take care of your things and space if you don’t first notice when it needs some attention. A habit of paying attention feeds a habit of taking care. Equally, a habit of ignoring anything that is wrong feeds a habit of inaction.

For me, paying attention is part of what it means to be a Druid. Sloughing off the conventions of apathy, disinterest and oblivion in favour of knowing and noticing; even when it isn’t comfortable to do so. Those throwaway remarks, those unconsidered actions can roll on to have unforeseen impact. I’d rather know what I’m doing, although I find I never can truly live up to that.

There are daily opportunities to put other people down, pick holes, criticise and complain. Sometimes that’s really important. Right now you might want to complain on twitter about proposed gagging laws and tweet #gagginglaw and #ldconf to encourage the Liberal Democrats to properly debate the issue at their conference. You might want to complain about the sheer insanity of the badger cull, which isn’t going to help farmers in the slightest. You could complain about fracking, about war, or any social justice or environmental issue that grabs you today. Those things are so worth challenging over. Complain to the people in power. Do it directly. Make a difference.

So often though, where we pour our energy isn’t into the big issues of the day. It’s not world peace, or saving species… its small, nitpicky grumbles with the people around this. You did this… I did not say that… you’re so unreasonable, I’m so put upon… we let the small problems seem like really big ones. Perhaps in part because we don’t want to think about the big problems. Let’s face it, most of them are terrifying. I’d rather not think about that. Or, more precisely, I’d rather not *need* to think about them. Fracking and gagging laws won’t go away just because I’d really rather they weren’t out there waiting to happen.
Every day there are chances for small acts of warmth, kindness and encouragement. Every day brings opportunities to praise and encourage, to share inspiration, to reach out in good ways to those around us. Equally, every day is full of reasons to get cross, feel put upon and lash out. I’ve been tired of the lashing out business for a long time. Let’s do less of that thing, especially on the internet where trolling and bashing are rife. Let’s not pour energy into hurting each other. Let’s try and support each other so that we can turn our energy to the big issues, the big fights.

Between us, we have an amazing amount of power. I don’t care who left the toilet seat up. I don’t care that it is up. Let’s be splendid. Let’s be proud of each other, supportive of each other, and from that, able to really challenge what’s going on out there. And to those of you who are innately splendid and weave your lives out of compassion and careful attention, please know that you are hugely appreciated and a source of much inspiration to people who encounter you. I’ve been blessed with a few such folk in my life, and you represent a standard I would very much like to live up to.


The relativity of pain

Pain is subjective. How you understand it, be it bodily or emotional, depends on what else you have experienced first-hand, and what you have seen others endure. If you aren’t very empathic or haven’t encountered much suffering, that second option will barely exist for you. The biggest pain you have ever known is the measure of how bad you think it can get (ie, that plus whatever you are capable of imagining is worse). For young children, every bump and frustration is a source of overwhelming misery.
Gradually, some of us learn new perspectives, a few of us don’t.

It can be all too easy to get into the idea that “my pain is bigger than yours, and that mine should be taken seriously, while yours should not”. I spent my childhood being told I had a low pain threshold, yet I’ve had 2 tattoos without so much as a whimper, and went most of the way through labour with no pain relief. I consequently find I have no idea how my pain relates to anyone else’s. If it hurts more than I can bear, I need help, or something to change. If I can bear it, I bear it. What else is there? What help is it to be told at that point that you’re making a fuss, over reacting, that your pain is not as big as you think it is?

It’s difficult encountering those people for whom a torn nail, the wrong actor getting the Batman role, a head cold or a bad day at the office seems like something of earth shattering proportions. I do find it hard watching the amount of energy people expend griping about what seems trivial to me. Whose perspective is wrong? Actually, it could well be mine. Perhaps I should be taking my own pain a bit more seriously, rather than assuming that I’m just being lazy or feeling sorry for myself.

Then there’s the knowledge that if any of us had been through a Nazi death camp, a Rwandan massacre, an epic natural disaster… we’d have a whole other perspective again. There are people who will get to watch their loved ones suffer and die, powerless to help them. There are people whose apparently whingey griping about pain turns out to be the undiagnosed cancer that kills them. Perspective works best when you’re looking backwards, possessed of all the facts. When you’re in pain, you probably don’t have that. You don’t know what was meant, or how much less an issue it will be than what tomorrow is going to bring for you. All you know at that point is how it fits with where you have been.

We all start out howling because the teddy falls out of the pram. We learn at the speed life sees fit to teach us. That might be a gentle curve. It might be in sudden shocks and bounds. We might coast along for forty years and then be crushed by something we were in no way prepared for. Life doesn’t always help us grow into a useful perspective before it really shits on us. Today, the worst problem is how to peel a pomegranate. Tomorrow, you are hit by a truck, but not killed.

The only answer is compassion, with ourselves, and with the people around us. No one knows what someone else is feeling, or how that fits in the context of the rest of their life. If someone is hurting, try not to judge them. Maybe you could sail through that problem untroubled, but maybe that’s because you aren’t as bruised already as they are. We don’t know. It helps to remember that.