Is Suffering Quantifiable?

It’s a common point for philosophical debate: The idea that there will always be someone worse off, and consequently, the idea that we shouldn’t moan about the circumstances which life deals us. Leaving aside the slight element of schadenfreude in this sentiment, it’s not something that I’ve ever been able to fully reconcile in my head.

I believe in positive thinking, I really do. I think that whilst we don’t have the power to control certain things that happen to us, we do have at least some degree of control over how we respond to those things. And life is very much what you make it. No matter what life throws at us, it’s worth taking the time to look for, and celebrate, the positives. A consistently negative attitude makes no one happy, least of all yourself. But that doesn’t mean there is no room at all for negative feelings in life. And it definitely doesn’t mean that your right to feel negatively about something should be graded against what other people are going through.

Yet, there have been times when people have told me that “at least diabetes isn’t cancer”. That “at least epilepsy isn’t cancer”. During one of my moments of feeling utterly overwhelmed with managing diabetes during a pregnancy, I was told by a “friend” that I couldn’t possibly moan, because so many people would give so much to be in my position, expecting a baby.

And now I’m in that position myself – desperate to conceive but for whatever reason struggling to do so – I’m being regularly told that I haven’t actually been trying that long compared to many other people, or had to go through the years of fertility treatment that others have endured and reminded that “at least you already have one child”, and so, consequently, I shouldn’t moan.

These kind of statements are imbued with the assumption that I hadn’t realised these things, or that I am ungrateful for the very many blessings with which I find myself, and this frustrates me beyond belief. Of course I’m well aware of all the many awful things that happen in people’s lives and the world at large. I’m well aware that for some people, the dream of a family never becomes a reality. But just because such difficulties exist for others, simply because there is terrible suffering to be found, does that instantly negate my own feelings of sadness and frustration, or make me any less entitled to feel what I feel about them?

I don’t believe that it is necessary to measure every situation against someone else’s, when the situation at hand represents a unique challenge to the person concerned. Just because something passes like water off a duck’s back for you doesn’t automatically mean that it will for everyone, and each person has different priorities, hopes and dreams. Each person’s experience of life is so different that I simply can’t believe my feelings about the individual hand life has dealt me can be quantified against anyone else’s feelings surrounding theirs.

To be completely honest, I think the only benchmark for how something makes you feel is yourself. Everything is relative, after all.


4 Replies to “Is Suffering Quantifiable?”

  1. Quite! It’s entirely contextual isn’t it. I mean no one would quibble and tell me not to be so silly if I said I found A-level Further Maths hard just because some people do it at degree level; or tell me to be grateful for the A-level I already had. The material difference is the emotional investment but it shouldn’t invalidate anyone’s right to feel that things are hard going just because some poor people are having an even rougher ride.

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