Don’t You Know Other People Have It Worse Than You?

So how are you doing?

Anyone with Fibromyalgia, CFS, depression or chronic pain will tell you that this is not necessarily a fun question to hear. It is often a flippant question, given as an opening to something else or in passing. Anyone who suffers on a daily basis know that most people aren’t really interested in the truth, they are just making conversation. In my work with chronic pain patients this often comes up – the feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding. It’s often easier just to say, “fine”, no matter how you feel. No stable person wants to be a burden. Few people are willing to listen if you really need to talk, anyway.

Fine – F**ked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. Ya, I’m fine.

Of course there are those people who love to hear your problems. They practice what I like to refer to as, “amateur psychology hour”. They have all kinds of advice for you. They also love to compare. Sure you may have a chronic back problem but they have a sore back too and they still go to work. You look fine, so you should be fine. They read an article, or watched Doctor Phil (before he blew it on Twitter last week) and they know how to help you. Just walk more. See their naturopath. Read this or that book or website. Sleep without any underwear facing east (actual advice). Why are you still depressed? Don’t you want to get better? You have too many metals in your system. Oprah talked about your problem just last week. Stop whining. Look on the bright side. Don’t you know other people have it worse off than you? Count your blessings.

Thanks for that. It really helps.

It’s not that the aforementioned advice can’t be helpful. Clichés are popular because they contain an element of truth. Your attitude really does, sometimes and in some ways, determine your altitude. If you change your mind your really will change your life. The problem is timing. If you are so depressed you cannot get out of bed, going for a half hour walk or praying for an hour may not be helpful advice. Eating more kale probably is a good idea but won’t cure your chronic pain. Dieting is a good thing but sometimes you have other issues screaming for your attention. It’s important to recognize that making grandiose prescriptions for other people’s problems isn’t always helpful or appreciated.

Mother Teresa was once asked: “Why do you give them fish to eat? Why don’t you give them a rod to catch the fish?” She responded: “But my people can’t even stand. They’re sick, crippled, demented. When I have given them fish to eat and they can stand, I’ll turn them over and you give them the rod to catch the fish!” Profound words. No one knows what you are going through today. You may get all the best advice in the world but you still can’t stand. Great words are only helpful if you are able to hear them through the fog.

Years ago, when my life fell apart, I heard hundreds of pieces of advice but I could not receive them. What did matter, however, were those who climbed down into my pit and cried with me, fed me, hugged me, and loved my kids. All the best counsel in the world wasn’t as important as a casserole, or a coffee, or a gift for my boys. It didn’t matter if other people had it worse, I could barely cope with what I had.

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give… We have nothing but our freedom. I have nothing to give you but your own freedom. If it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere.”
Ursula Le GuinThe Dispossessed

What Would You Do?

I admit it, I liked Sister Act. So when I heard that one of the members of Sister Act 2 was in the band City High I decided to check them out. CH was a one-hit-wonder band of the early millennium who got famous for their hit “What Would You Do?“, a tragic melody about judging a stripper because she was turning tricks to feed her hungry child. The song is dripping with pain, including the line “ran away so our daddy wouldn’t rape us.”

I remember spending a week looking for a friend who was suicidal in the worst parts of Chicago in the early nineties. Dive after dive, bar after bar, knocking on hotel rooms with fifteen people living in one room, talking to hookers, visiting crack shacks and sleazy strip clubs. It is an experience I have never forgotten, a naive Canadian from the prairies walking down alleys alone at 3 a.m.

About a year ago I was at Main and Hastings in Vancouver, checking out Insite, the legal injection site on the meanest four square blocks in North America. As I left the building and turned the corner I almost walked into a beautiful little girl, no more than twelve or thirteen, shoving a needle in her thigh. If you have never been on Hastings just past Main on three or four square blocks of hell it’s hard to describe what it is like. Oh ya, you can watch the reality show based in Vancouver but nothing can give you that feeling of being in a human stew of 1000 junkies and prostitutes, the mentally and physically ill, Canada’s unwanted. There is a sense of adrenaline mixed with a bit of yuppie fear and caution. It is a wave, a tsunami, that pulses with a stench and vibrancy that must be experienced to be really believed.

It is a complex problem. I heard a politician say this past week that if the government would do it’s job than we wouldn’t have a drug problem. What an idiot. The power of using is far stronger than political will and addiction and addicts are problems that no amount of money or politics or even social services can eliminate. And to be honest, except for the Salvation Army , the Union Gospel Mission, the street nurses, and a few Christian groups, the larger community is really willing to get messy enough to effect change. East Hastings is a war zone and anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t been there. It defies explanation and description.

These days, four days a week I hand out rigs, condoms, cookers and swabs to people trapped in addiction. I talk angusto people who have endured things I never imagined growing up. As a counselor you hear the most hurtful and damning confessions and stories. The lineup of human misery never ends. Then I drive home to my happy home in the suburbs where my amazing kids, a supportive wife, and a new grandson wait for me to show.

I have a friend Trista who lives and works at the intersection of Main and Hastings and is far better suited than I to speak about what goes on in her neighborhood. When I hang out with her I am humbled and embarrassed. Embarrassed that I pretend to be where the action is, and I become keenly aware of the fact that I don’t really know what is going on in the real world.

It’s very easy to criticize from the suburbs. Why can’t these people get a job? Why do they choose to live on the streets, abuse their bodies, and make the decisions they do? Why should I give money to the bum on the street when he’s only going to use it for drugs?

Many people who have grown up in the middle-class world cannot understand the sociology of growing up in a home where welfare is a generational inheritance, where the culture of neglect and abuse is so pervading that children grow up with no idea how to function in a society they have only seen on television.

“What would you do if your son was at home
Cryin’ all alone on the bedroom floor?
Cuz he’s hungry, and the only way to feed him Is to sleep with a man
For a little bit of money and his daddy’s gone
Somewhere smokin’ rock now In and out of lockdown,
I ain’t got a job now
So for you this is just a good time but for me this is what I call life”

Then she looked me right square in the eye
And said, “Every day I wake up hopin’ to die”
She said, “Nigga, I know about pain ‘cuz
Me and my sister ran away so my daddy couldn’t rape us
Before I was a teenager, I done been through more shit You can’t even relate to”

Mother_Teresa_of_Calcutta_6smWhat would you do? Almost every day I am reminded that before I judge the person in front in me I should realize that I really have no idea what they are going through, their pain, their challenges.

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
Mother Teresa