The Misery Olympics

My old friend Rich put up an excellent little Facebook post about how people seem bent on outdoing others when it comes to comparing levels of misery and personal problems. Specifically, Rich lives in New York, where – you might have heard – it’s been really, really hot lately. It’s not fun, especially in a city that has the population density and social graces of a Dropkick Murphys mosh pit, and so quite a few New Yorkers have taken to various forms of social media to register their discomfort. Anytime someone from the area posts about it, though, it seems like other people swoop in to outdo them – “You think it’s hot there? That’s nothing! I live in the Sahara and it’s 158 degrees right now!” Or, even better, non sequitur classics like, “Heat is nothing, try raising four kids and see how you feel!” and “You should be glad heat is your only problem – think about all the human rights abuses in China right now!” As I was reading it, I found myself nodding at his description of people’s behavior, and it reminded me of something from many years back: the Misery Olympics.

It was a term my parents used on occasion to describe the fact that misery and suffering aren’t a competition. In particular, my parents used to tell me, “Problems are sized to people.” In other words, if someone is upset, it’s because that issue is a real concern to them. It may seem trivial to someone with a different set of problems – because, of course, their own problems are much worse and more important than anyone else’s – but it’s not trivial to the person making the complaint or experiencing the distress. Otherwise they wouldn’t be concerned.

When I was a kid in grade school, my parents listened to my worries about book reports and science projects and gave me advice and support accordingly. They didn’t talk down to me or brush me off with how lucky I was to be a kid. Looking back, I’m sure having to write two pages on George Washington seems idyllic compared to struggling to work, raise two kids, balance budgets, maintain a stable marriage and do the thousand other things working parents do – but they recognized that I didn’t have those problems. I had 8 year old problems that made 8 year old me concerned, so they treated them seriously (or if they didn’t, I never caught on).

Even as adults, you’ll see a certain type of person who likes to swoop in when people complain about something and say things like, “Shut up, you’re lucky you live in the US where you can worry about paying a mortgage, right now thousands are dying in the Sudan!” I understand the sentiment (see below), but at the same time, even after I reflect on how lucky I am to live in the US and be part of my socio-economic class … my problems are still there when I’m done. I know I’m lucky to have my main worry be paying a mortgage, as opposed to fearing for my life or foraging for food in a bombed out wasteland, but that bill still needs to be paid or I have serious problems to consider about where my wife and I will live. And that’s not life or death, but it’s not nothing either.

I’m not saying a little perspective isn’t necessary from time to time – witness people losing their minds every time FB changes its interface, nerds raging “thanks for ruining my childhood Hollywood” because somebody is making a Thundercats movie, or the spoiled brats whining that their lives are ruined because their parents didn’t get them the right *color* iPhone 5 for Christmas. There are definitely times when we need to stop and consider just how bad our problems are, whether it’s in the grand scheme of things or just with regard to our own lives. Even when I was making much ado about nothing even for a kid, my folks would call me on it – it’s one thing to be anxious because there’s a major report coming due, it’s quite another to be upset because the store didn’t have the TMNT figure I wanted.

There’s no Misery Olympics, people, so stop going for the gold, and support each other instead.

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