Suffering is not a zero-sum competition

A problem is a problem, first-world or not

I have some high-achieving friends who sometimes suffer and feel emotional pain, as we all do. Sometimes they talk to me about it, and a refrain that I hear over and over again is:

“Oh, but I know that it's not so bad. I'm lucky because I have <x privilege> and <y prestigious job>. This is such a first world problem.”

They do this as a pre-emptive defense to comments like the following, which are very common:

  • "When I was your age I <suffered a worse version of what you are describing>. Kids these days are such crybabies."

  • "Stop being such a millennial snowflake. Nobody cares about you."

  • "Think about the people <in a worse situation>. Is this really so bad?"

The Financial Times recently published a slide deck created by 13 first-year Goldman Sachs analysts - kids purportedly at the peak of prestige and potential for future careers in finance. This slide deck describes the worst aspects of life in such a job and position. You can expect to be socially disrespected due to your junior status, repeatedly asked to do work that serves no purpose, and feel compelled to always choose work over family and friends. You also won't have enough time for habits that maintain good physical and mental health, including sleep.

Magnitude of pain aside, nobody would actually argue that this is an emotionally healthy way to live.

Not surprisingly, the comments section looks like this:

Let's put aside the fact that an exhausted and mentally unwired human being is extremely unlikely to produce good work. Even the most cold-hearted misanthrope should be able to understand why this culture is long-run bad for client outcomes and therefore bad for the bottom line, even if they couldn't give a hoot about the kids themselves. I've talked about this in another essay, so I won't dwell on it here.

Then are these comments just the unfortunate effect of anonymity over the internet? Anonymity and a lack of accountability certainly makes it easy to be unkind. When we can’t see the other side, it's easy to treat them as a tool for bolstering our own status or soothing our own insecurities, instead of treating them as human beings who are asking for empathy.

Then I thought, "no parent would speak to their own children this way". Unfortunately, that's not true. Plenty of parents are incapable of navigating their children's emotions with skill and lovingkindness (mettā), even if they are otherwise strong providers in a material sense and have achieved substantial success in their own careers.

Why do sufferers and listeners alike treat suffering as some sort of zero-sum pie?

From the comments above, you'd think that emotional acknowledgement and empathy was some kind of consumable resource. That by validating one person's feelings, I've somehow drawn down on the pool and taken those resources away from someone more deserving. Obviously, that's not the case.

This may be a misplaced application of triage. In an emergency room, it does make sense to treat the guy with the gunshot wound before you treat the guy with a paper cut. In this case, the doctor's attention is a limited resource, and order matters. We can help both people if we prioritize correctly.

But our conversations with friends about their deepest fears and anxieties do not take place in an emergency room, and we usually don't have to allocate our emotional capacity across the entire world's suffering. I read about wars and abuse, but my understanding of those stories and the people in them is abstract and low-dimensional. Also, I usually can't do anything useful about them.

In contrast, our friends are those who have some degree of shared context to us. Even if we live different lives, have different jobs, or have different values, we must have experienced something together in order to become friends. That shared experience is the rich and useful data on which genuine human connection is built - the kind that soothes the soul and makes somebody feel safe and seen.

The impact of this kind of careful attention should not be underestimated. It is powerful and valuable. The psychotherapy industry should know: people pay hundreds of dollars per hour to their shrinks in search of this kind of attention, and often walk away empty-handed. It is often the most valuable thing we can give to a friend or loved one.

A failure to understand somebody else's suffering, or the intuition that their suffering seems trivial in comparison to someone else's, is not good grounds to conclude that their suffering is illegitimate. It usually just means that you haven't asked the right questions yet, or you don’t have the context to understand them.

And while we have no obligation to understand everybody's suffering (after all, we are limited by our own perspective), the principle of "first, do no harm" seems sensible here. "Sorry, I don't really understand" is a fair response. The temptation to take them down is usually more about our own insecurities, rather than any genuine desire to help another.