I've written before about people's responses to pain, and normally my main commentary is 'stop trying to fix it.' But today I'd like to touch on another response that I find equally (scratch that: more) frustrating: commenting on the source of the pain or the pain itself.
Here are some examples:
"Cheer up, it's not that bad."
"Other people have it worse."
At the very best, these are outright dismissals of another person's experience; at the worst, they are an invalidation of the person altogether. When you try to convince someone that their pain is not a real and tangible thing (or that it's not as real and tangible as they're saying it is), you're telling them that you somehow know their experiences better than them and that they are wrong for having whatever emotional reaction or feelings they're having.
And of course I'm not saying there's never a time for looking on the bright side, but has it ever helped you when someone pointed out all the good things in your life as if you didn't already know them?
This is why it bugs me when I hear people say things like 'they're just being a teenager' when talking about middle schoolers, high schoolers, or college students. Yes: developmentally, adolescents are experiencing emotions differently than other people. But that doesn't make their experience any less real or valid, it makes it unique.
Imagine if you witnessed someone with a broken foot accidentally have that foot slammed in a door: would you write their pain off because they're more prone to it at the moment?
As someone who's worked in ministries with elementary-aged children, middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students, it constantly catches me off guard how very real the problems they're facing are.
Even worse is when people argue against the source of the pain altogether.
"You're blowing that out of proportion."
"That's not even what happened."
"But ____ happens too, so you can't be upset about this."
I've seen this all over recently, most notably in the response to movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. Listen: if your response is to whip out statistics about something else or argue that people should just follow rules or any of the other responses that come up so often, you're wrong. I don't care if your statistics are right or your point is right, your heart is wrong.
Do we ever see Jesus in the Gospels ignore someone's pain because if they had just acted differently they wouldn't have been in that situation? Do we see Him refusing to heal a blind man because the lepers have it worse and he should just cheer up and be thankful for what he has? Do we see a God incarnate that ignores or dismisses the pain of His people for any reason?
Or do we see a God that loves His people so much that even when the pain is our own fault, He puts on skin and steps into our messy world and suffers with us?
The simple fact of the matter is that it literally could not matter less if you disagree with what causes someone pain or not. (Tweet) As a symptom of being human, we all experience pain for different things and in different ways. You don't get to dismiss or devalue someone else's grief anymore than they get to dismiss yours.
If you don't understand someone's pain, your job is to listen.
Not listen and debate.
Not kind of listen and then shove your advice or opinion in.
Definitely not decide the pain isn't real or worthwhile without even trying to listen & understand.
The times that have meant the most to me have been when people listened, and then offered simple truths that didn't serve to demean or diminish the pain I was going through.
When they told me they didn't understand, but that they were there.
When they told me that my pain was real but that hope was also real.
When they told me that darkness and light are not a dichotomy, that so often in this life they coexist and even when we're hanging onto the belief that the light wins in the end, it doesn't mean we should pretend that the darkness doesn't exist.
It is not wrong to hurt, to mourn, to grieve.
It is not wrong to hold pain and hope side by side. (Tweet)
That's the tension of the life we're living, and we live it together better when we acknowledge that tension instead of trying to resolve it by pretending half of it doesn't exist.