The Suffering Olympics
This is a term that Brandeis University Holocaust Professor Antony Polonsky coined, and that I often use when I encounter folks who try to quantify, or "one up", other people's pain and suffering with their own.
The Suffering Olympics are, in a nutshell, the pride and ego hunger games. No one gets to be the next Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt or Simone Biles in the Suffering Olympics. No one ever "wins" the game- in reality, everyone involved loses. The Suffering Olympics rob us of our voice, divides instead of unites us, and encourages apathy over empathy. They are the result of Pride, Stubbornness, and Entitlement getting together to have a pissing contest.
The torch to the Suffering Olympics is lit as soon as one person starts comparing and contrasting their personal pain and suffering to another person's experience of pain and suffering. Conversely, the Suffering Olympics are played when someone hides their own pain because they feel that it doesn't "measure up" to another person's -as if their own voice isn't valid compared to someone else's.
As a Cancer Grad, I often have to keep myself aware to not unwillingly diminish someone else's pain, due to any perceptions that their issues aren't or weren't as difficult as mine. Sometimes that perception stems from me, especially on the occasions when I start to fall, unchecked, into cancer self-pity. Other times that perception stems from other people.
For example, my husband suffers from debilitating back pain -piriformis syndrome- which tends to flare up once or twice a year if he isn't diligent about stretching and maintaining his core strength. It not only causes him severe physical pain, but mental and emotional stress as well. The pain limits him in a myriad of ways- when a flare-up occurs, he gets depressed & irritable. He feels vulnerable and disappointed with his body.
When he suffers during a flare up, I sometimes catch myself thinking, "You don't understand pain the way *I* do" - which isn't fair of me. The reality is, he doesn't need to be diagnosed with cancer in order for me to be sympathetic to his pain and frustration. When I recognize that I'm participating in the Suffering Olympics, I try to tap into my empathetic side- I'm very familiar with frustration and vulnerability, the sadness and pain we feel when our bodies fail us, even if it's for just a moment. I try to be vigilant in reminding myself that it doesn't matter if someone is drowning in 5 feet or 50 feet of water- the point is that they are DROWNING.
The Suffering Olympics also play out when we hide our pain because we don't think it's worthy of being validated. In an effort to "know your audience", sometimes we don't want to sound like whiners about struggles that seem trite in comparison to someone else's. While I probably wouldn't complain about a stubbed toe to an amputee, sharing and relating our trauma and our triumphs can connect us if we stop to really listen to one another. I once had a friend and fellow cancer grad confess to me that she felt like she had "failed at cancer" simply because she never had to go through chemo. She said this to me as if there were a suffering richter scale, and her pain measured at a paltry 1.2 compared to my 7. This comparison, of course, is ridiculous. Pain is pain. It hurts. Other people's struggles deserve to be honored as much as mine do.
I really don't like how it feels to witness suffering in any form. I try to use the knowledge and experience that I gained from my cancer diagnosis as a means to become a better listener. Being diagnosed with cancer is terrible- but I'm trying to use it as a catalyst to listen and empathize better. We hear with our ears but listen with our hearts. I'm going to keep aiming to listen to other people from my heart.
Have you ever been dragged into the Suffering Olympics? Has cancer made you into a better listener or more empathetic? How do you validate other people's pain? Comment below.