I got stung by a wasp a few days ago. It hurt. A lot. Earlier in the summer, I accidentally put my hand right on a wasp nest while picking boysenberries and got stung several times. Those stings made me go “ouch” and move to a different spot to resume my harvest. This time, one wasp sting and I was howling, grasping my arm, running to the house for an ice pack. Which I applied repeatedly over the next several days as my wrist became swollen and almost unusable. And hurt. A lot.
Let’s set aside for the moment any speculation about whether one sting was actually a hornet and the other a yellow jacket or if the location of the sting mattered and so on. It occurred to me if I had only experienced the first set of wasp stings and then witnessed someone howling in pain over a wasp sting, I would think such a person a total wimp.
Thus I was reminded: even if we have experienced something similar to what someone else is experiencing we can not know exactly what that person is going through.
I remember learning something about this when I was grieving my first husband’s death. Dear, well meaning people would say things to me like, “Well, I can tell you it is better to lose someone to death than through divorce.” My initial response was to think, “How is this supposed to be a helpful thing for me to hear?” Hearing others are worse off only means it could get worse for me and other people's pain does not make me happy. It makes my heart hurt. And then there was my more flip response thinking, “So, what you are telling me is you wish your ex was dead.” But then I thought about who was speaking and how I really thought they were trying to help, and trying to connect with me or maybe just needing to express their own pain. And I thought about the truth present in their words because our society and our churches truly do a worse job dealing with divorce than they do with death. Finally, though, I thought about why this line of reasoning is just not helpful. To compare my grief to another’s divorce assumes our relationships were the same, our previous experiences were the same, our prior mental health was the same, and on and on. My husband was a unique individual. I am a unique individual. Our relationship with each other was a unique experience. Therefore the grief I experienced was unique as well. There are many similarities between grief resulting from a death and grief resulting from a divorce. There are differences as well. Attempting to quantify one type of grief against another requires generalizations which discount the individuality of each experience and is most likely not helpful. Both suck. That is quantity enough.
Bearing all this in mind can help us have greater compassion in many situations. Even in regards to people who are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. we can find more compassion for them if we remember we don’t know all the particularities of their experience. We don't know the messages they have heard throughout their lives. We don’t know the negative experiences they may have had. Even if we have had many of the same experiences and have similar backgrounds, we don't know how their own particular hormonal and physical health affects their emotions, their needs and wants, and so on. We can not know who we would have become if all the circumstances were the same. There are way too many variables in any person's experience. This does not excuse anyone from responsibility for their own actions nor does it mean some people don't attempt to shirk responsibility through self-pity or dramatization. But, perhaps remembering the uniqueness of each individual's experience can help me not to jump to quick judgment or stumble into my own brand of self-righteous condescension.
I think I may have learned a bit more compassion from my wasp sting.
I also learned to be more respectful of wasps. I suspect my daughter will be as well after hearing her mother’s piercing scream upon being stung by one.
And here I have been working so hard to foster in my children an image of their mother as a bad a**. My howling pretty much ruined that image.
I couldn't help it. It hurt. A lot.