When tragedy strikes others, we comfort them as best we can; and we comfort ourselves by comparing their tragedy to our own problems and say, “At least things aren’t that bad,” or “Things could be worse.” These events could be death, illness, accident, financial or relationship woes. And while it is helpful to put “things” in perspective, it also returns us to a place of complacency, a place where we settle for the way things are because, after all, they’re just not that bad, instead of being motivated to make them better.
Being compassionate towards others’ suffering is crucial to keeping us connected with our family, the community, and the world at large. It also accepts that the next time you might be the one who draws the short straw and is challenged. The big picture helps us to keep our little picture in perspective so as not to fall prey to the “woe is me” trap for every little glitch we hit.
Happily or sadly, when the crisis is over, life as we know it returns. And while one or more person’s life is devastated, the rest of us get to go back to business as usual. Fair, no; but practical, yes. Any time spent in reflection on how our marital troubles don’t hold a candle to a child’s cancer, or how our nagging tennis elbow pales to a neighbor losing their home, falls by the wayside.
Why don’t we continually address the problems in our lives until things become unbearable? If a quick trip to the doctor can set our elbow straight, what is stopping us? If the same issue with our spouse has been replaying now for months or even years, what are we waiting for?
We have become numb to the mediocrity of our lives in the interest of tolerance.
While many situations have a sudden onset like an auto accident, others build up over time. Petty nuisances that were easily overlooked become the elephant in the room that you just cannot ignore. Some circumstances are truly unforeseen while others are truly of our own making. Like it or not, we choose the “not so bad” over and over again.
Try this exercise:
Pick a friend who actually or fictitiously has a trauma (aging parent moving in, child with diabetes, infidelity, etc.). In imagining their pain and difficulty with this situation, think of the day-to-day gripes in your own life that seem petty in comparison. Of those things, choose the one whose disappearance would have the biggest impact on your life. Now fix it. Whatever it takes, devote some time and energy to making that problem better.
Because many problems involve other people, you may not solve it. However, you are always able to improve the situation by changing your relationship to it. Whether it’s agreeing to disagree, detaching from the outcome, or accepting things as they are, all will effectively pull the plug on the problem. As that happens, the danger of complacency goes with it.