I had an interesting conversation about relative suffering the other day, and I’ve been thinking about it since. No one lives a perfectly charmed life, and everyone will endure suffering at some point. Comparing your suffering to others is rarely healthy or helpful.
For instance, if you’ve lost a loved one and you’re grieving, it probably doesn’t help even one little bit to learn of someone else who lost two loved ones. Even if there were some sort of objective measure of pain and grief (which of course there is not), the person who lost two people doesn’t necessarily suffer more than the person who lost one.
I think grief and mourning are actually far more binary than we often think; or if not fully binary (i.e. grieving or not with no relevant degree of intensity), then at least the spectrum of feeling is narrower than we think. And that’s where perspective helps us – not to rank ourselves on some vast bell curve of pain and loss, but to help us recognize when grief isn’t appropriate at all.
Some of this is of course subjective – I won’t tell someone not to grieve over a lost pet even if I don’t personally do that. But it means if the thing that’s causing you abject grief is being out of chocolate milk, it may do well to know what causes suffering in others in order to have a little perspective.
And if, in chasing perspective, you also gain sympathy – so much the better.