Some days ago, I discovered the podcast Social Distance by The Atlantic. This podcast captures conversations between the preventive medicine physician and staff writer at The Atlantik Dr James Hamblin and the executive producer of podcasts for The Atlantic Katherine Wells about different aspects of the current 2020 COVID-19 crisis. Often they are joined by a topic expert to discuss with and learn from.
One of the first episodes I listened to was episode 21 ‘You’re Doing Great’ in which James and Katherine are talking tp Lori Gottlieb, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a psychotherapist. She recently wrote a column about losing her father in the mids of a pandemic. Their conversation evolved around grief during these uncertain times at large but also very personal.
One statement by Gottlieb resonated with me:
“Grief is the pain of loss. And it doesn’t have to be a death. It’s any kind of loss that causes you pain. People are minimizing certain losses because they feel like they aren’t valid. You’re missing your college graduation, for example. That’s a loss, and you grieve that. But it’s not the loss of a life, for example, or the loss of a job. As I always say: There’s no hierarchy of pain. There’s no hierarchy of grief. Grief is grief and loss is loss.”
It reminded me of the many times friends apologised for sharing a problem with me. In the bare face of the death of my father, a struggles with a flatmate over the dishes or the disappointing date seemed too small, too unimportant to bother me with them. How could they feel bad about the favourite t-shirt from that live-changing concert 15 years ago getting ruined in the laundry while I was grieving one of the most important people in my life? How could a sprained ankle that ended the participation in a dance tournament when my heart was breaking over never again seeing the man who raised me?
Similar to Gottlieb, I believe that there is no right or wrong in grief, pain or suffering – no bigger or smaller. How could working towards this one dance tournament for over a year and sacrificing time with family and friends being ruined just a day before it not count as a loss? Same goes for the shirt, which is so much more than a simple and replaceable textile. It is the token of the memory of the last concert they went to with their university best friend before she moved to the other side of the world.
That might sound ridiculous to you.
To help you better understand this seeming riddle, I would like to introduce to the concept of subjective vs objective suffering to you.
In this blog post, I am referring to a concept I was taught by a disability activist some years ago. Unfortunately, we fall out of touch and to my shame, I cannot recall her name to correctly cite her here in recognition of her emotional labour. I am aware that these terms are used similarly within Buddhist teachings and medical philosophy. Nevertheless, I have not done enough research to correctly include them here.
Let’s explain the concept of subjective vs objective suffering with an example. For that, I would like to introduce Alma and Bettel. Alma is a wheelchair user depending on assistance in many of her daily activities. Bettel struggles with chronic back pain and takes pain killers frequently.
Looking at those two people without knowing anything else, who would you think struggles more going through life? Most of us would say, Alma, as most of our infrastructure is not accessible for wheelchair users and their life is impacted by countless stereotypes and stigma. If both would enter a room at the same time, Alma would always be identified as “different” and “in need of assistance”. In navigating our capitalist, sexist, ableist and racist society, people with visible disabilities and illnesses would encounter more discrimination and oppression – e.g. higher objective suffering.
But if we zoom into the actual daily life of these two people, we would see that Alma actually is the executive director for a nonprofit organisation, frequently travels the world and lives in a house fully adjusted to their needs. Bettel’s pain got so bad that they are on sick leave for over two months from their minimum wage job. The medication they are taking is highly addictive and harms their stomach and liver. Some days the pain is so bad they cannot get out of bed, which isolates them more and more.
Again, who would you think struggles more going through life? Point out only Alma does not feel right anymore, but how could we choose Bettel? It feels wrong to ignore all the societal and systemic factors that Alma as a wheelchair user has to fight against. But it also feels terrible to not count the real physical, psychological and financial hardship that Bettel experiences despite her societal and systemic privileges as a person passing as able-bodied.
That is where subjective suffering comes into play. Subjective suffering looks at to which degree an individuals’ life is negatively impacted through the intersection of their unique lived experience. Acknowledging Bettel’s daily pain and struggle to the degree these negatively affect their life within the framework of subjective suffering does not negate the real systemic oppression Alma experiences.
Going back to my apologising friends at the beginning: Your -at first sight maybe trivial appearing- everyday issues, due not get devalued because my father died. The monstrosity of experiencing grief for a parent does not mean you cannot get upset because the bus did not come, and you will be late for the coffee with a friend.
If we encounter each other in an affectionate way in which we really see one another with all our weaknesses, we can avoid falling back into oppression olympics where we measure each other’s struggles in better or worse terms. The pure fondness of affections allows us to be there for others facing racism in the same way we can help out a friend who needs a couch to crash on after a bad break up. It also allows softness for your own struggles. You can cry over the loss of a pet in the same way you are raging about the endangerment of women* in refugee camps. Our lives and experiences are big enough to give space to both – subjective and objective suffering.
Thank you for taking the time out of you day. I hope it is helpful for you in navigating these uncertain times. Let me know what you think by leaving me a comment below. If you want me to reflect on another theory or concept reach out. Also, it would help me out if you like and share this post with our fellow trainer friends!
Love and appreciation,