Monday, January 13, 2014

Comparison (i.e. The "Why are you sad when there are starving children" argument)

[Don’t feel bad for yourself. Feel bad for exploited immigrants who have their fingers shattered while stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at monolithic retailers. Feel bad for the soldiers of pointless wars who have their arms blown off by IEDS. Feel bad for arthritic, long-haul truck drivers who need every firm grasp they have left for the dark roads and bottom-crashing races ahead. No matter how bad things get, none of those people can live the life that you can: a life of pathetic...resignation - Actual Sunlight ]

One of the most common habits which depression forms in us is ironically also one of the most common technique others use to try to convince us out of depression: Comparison.

We've all seen some variant on the above quote. The old cliche is "There's starving children in the world so what do you have to complain about." It's typically framed both positively, encouraging us to better appreciate the advantages we have, or negatively, shaming us for being unhappy when there are others in far worse situations than we are. It typically only does the latter, compounding on it with guilt as well. When I'm reminded, by myself or others, of how bad some people have it in comparison to me, I feel worse. I hate myself for being unhappy, and thus become more unhappy.

Yet arguing that we should feel better because others have it worse is nonsensical. Remember first that depression occurs without our consent, so saying we shouldn't feel bad because of anyone else's situation is irrelevant. We feel bad because depression makes us feel bad. Depression does not grow out from us because we are self-absorbed or ignorant of the struggles of others. Depression is a disease of the brain and mind which latches onto us and makes us unhappy when we do not want to be. Telling us not to feel bad, for any reason, means nothing. It's the equivalent of telling a broken arm to repair itself.

But that's not the main problem with the argument. The main problem is that it says we shouldn't be unhappy because others are suffering more than us. There seems to be an implication in this sort of comparison that there is a certain level of happiness or unhappiness one should have, based on their status in relation to everyone and everything else in the universe. If you are here, you should be this happy. I am in a better position than someone with cancer, ergo I should be happier.

Obviously, happiness doesn't work that way. Happiness is not tied only to our position in life. Our beliefs, our upbringing, our views of the world combine with our environment to inform whether or not we are happy. And of course, some unhappiness has very little to do with our environment. Spiritual and existential crises, a traumatic past, and of course mental illness do not need a physical environment to make us unhappy.

The argument also has the unfortunate ability to trivialize any and all issues we struggle with, as there is always someone we can consider worse off than us. It's said that we shouldn't complain about depression because there are children who are starving, but couldn't we say starving children shouldn't complain because there are some people in the world more starving than they are? And so on.

Unhappiness happens to all of us, naturally. And there's nothing wrong with that. Yes, there are some people who deal with different and more serious issues, but our struggles are not invalidated because of the struggles of others. Indeed, our efforts to help them might me mitigated by our own unresolved issues. I could not even conceive of writing this blog a year ago, as the thought of anything like it would fill me with tremendous anxiety and stress. It was only as I got better, that the idea of me operating blog like this became not only possible, but desirable. By being calmer and more clear-headed from helping myself, I was better able to focus on helping others

To be unhappy is not to be selfish, or ignorant. To be unhappy is to be human. When it is in excess, certainly that is of concern. But all of us, no matter our position in life, can be unhappy, in various situations, and to shame us for being unhappy by comparing us to others only serves to make us feel worse. We shouldn't be saying "what's wrong with you that you're unhappy", but rather "how can I help myself, or this other person, get better?"

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